John Lawton is a master of historical fiction set in and around World War II. His central character is Fred Troy, a policeman of Russian descent. His emigré father is what used to be called a ‘Press Baron’. Fred’s brother Rod will go on to become a Labour Party MP in the 1960s, but is interned during the war. His sisters are bit players, but memorable for their sexual voracity. Neither man nor woman is safe from their advances.
Fred becomes one of London’s top coppers, but to categorise the novels as police procedurals is accurate only in as far as that there are policemen in the books, and they occasionally have procedures. All this being said, Troy is in the background during much of A Lily of the Field, where we follow the life of teenager Méret Voytek, a brilliant young Viennese cellist.
As a twelve-year-old, she begins lessons in cello and piano from an eminent musician, Viktor Rosen. He realises instantly that she is prodigiously talented, and he gives her a gift:
After the Anschluss, through her own naivete and a tragic act of fate, she is caught holding a bundle of anti-Nazi leaflets while traveling on the tram. She is taken by the SS and ends up in Auschwitz. Meanwhile, her parents have been likewise detained, and their family home ransacked. Méret’s skill as a musician has already been noted but, ever naiive, she questions her friend Magda about why she has been singled out.
In the bitterest of paradoxes, the Auschwitz commandant, has a musical ear, and so he puts together an orchestra made up of the many skilled inmates. One of their bizarre duties is to play beautiful music as their less talented companions trudge off to work in the morning. Méret plays for her life, literally. The physical privations she undergoes are heart-breaking, but still she plays, still she clings on to what is left of life.
In January 1945, with the Russians approaching from the east, and the British and Americans from the west, the Germans realise that the game is up. Auschwitz inmates who are too infirm to walk are shot, and the remainder are sent out, under guard, to start the infamous Death March. In the freezing conditions few survive, but just as Meret is about to succumb, their column is overtaken by a Russian detachment. Salvation? Hardly. The first instinct of the Russian soldiers is to rape the women. Méret is saved by a no-nonsense officer. At this point, Fred Troy aficionados will recognise Major Larissa Tosca, Fred’s one-time lover. She has, in her time, spied for both America and for Russia, but here her cap bears the Red Star.
Long-time Lawton readers will know that he leaps about between the years with a sometimes bewildering agility. True to form, the climax of this book is played out in post war London and Paris. Méret’s rescue by the Russians has come at a price, and we find her tangled up in the spy ‘games’ which characterised much of the Cold War period. Lawton is much too clever a writer just to tell this one tale, however gripping it may be. Woven into the fabric is another thread which involves an interned Hungarian physicist, Dr. Karel Szabo, who ends up as a key figure in the American efforts to build and test the first atomic bomb.
One of the key figures from the spy ring of which Méret is a part is murdered in London, and it is then that Fred Troy becomes involved. For all his many qualities, Troy is an inveterate womaniser, but he is not a sexual beast, and the late scenes where he spends time with the fragile Méret, still beautiful but old before her time, are haunting in their compassion.
‘Troy had never heard her laugh. It was like that moment in Ninotchka when Garbo laughs on-screen for the first time. It is not merely that she laughs, but that she laughs so long and so loud.
As the laughter subsided she was grasping at words and not managing to get a sentence out.
“Oh, Troy ….oh, Troy..this is….this is a farce. Don’t you see? Viktor taught us the same part.”
“We’re two left-handed women trying to dance backward. Neither of us knows the man’s part.”
She reached up her sleeve for a handkerchief to dab her tears and found none. Troy gave her his, a huge square of Irish linen with an overfancy ‘f’ in one corner.
Being drunk did not make her loquacious. In that, she was like Troy. At two in the morning Voytek was deeply asleep in front of the fire. Troy picked her up, astonished at how little she weighed, carried her upstairs and slid her into the spare bed. She did not wake. He went to his own bed.
A Lily of the Field is far from being a dry history novel where the factual details are more important than the plot and the dialogue. It is tense, funny, occasionally very violent, and written with a style and fluency which leaves lesser authors struggling in Lawton’s wake. Above all, of course, it is about music. Méret’s brilliance as a musician is both her curse and her salvation.
A final little gem, which I only noticed recently. If you look closely at the book’s cover, you can see Méret Voytek, in her red coat, moving away from us. With her cello slung over her shoulder, she walks into history.