Publisher: Bantam Press
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Two Brothers is set in the time of the Holocaust. Ben Elton attempts to write about the life of four youngsters during this era, and how one of the greatest events in history impacts their lives.
There is no dearth of literature written on the Holocaust but Ben Elton’s Two Brothers stands miles apart from all other attempts and miles behind.
His narrative lacks the trauma that one expects after seeing the flaming red swastika flags on the book’s cover. I expected to be shaken and stirred by what is perhaps the greatest brainwashing social experiment ever conducted in human history. Instead, I was presented with a love story which lacks both love and a story worth telling.
Imagine the Holocaust, except that it’s set in Bollywood. Two heroes; both dashingly handsome. Otto and Paulus Stengel, brothers in all but blood.
Two heroines. One – the prettiest girl you’ve ever seen and the other, plain as paper yet pretty in her own way. Dagmar Fischer, heiress to a fortune and Silke, poor as they come.
In all, the four comprise the Saturday Club, which is both an escape from reality for the children and a promise to each other to forever serve and protect.
Both boys fall in love with the same girl – Dagmar, the one they can’t have. Silke, on the other, hand loves them more than her own life. Her love is unrequited albeit being more insistent and pure.
Sounds too simplistic. So add name swapping, lies and deceit and a twist!
Lets go back to Berlin in 1920. Freida Stengel is an expectant mother who welcomes twins with her jazz player husband, Wolfgang. However, the young parents have one stillborn. Incidentally, at the same hospital and at the same time, a gentile mother dies unexpectedly during childbirth. Her son, an orphan, is then added to the Stengel family tree.
Along with the two boys on the very same day, another baby is born – Hitler’s baby. The National Socialist Party, in other words known as the Nazi Party.
As soon as the Nazi Party comes to power, a clear distinction is made. Of the two boys, one has an actual chance at leading a normal life being born an Aryan, while his counterpart and his adoptive parents are condemned to a life of subservience and pain as they are Jewish.
But somehow both the ‘twins’ end up on separate sides of the World War. One joins Hitler’s Party and the other the British Army.
The story is a stretch at fantasy. It is impossible to survive all the tragedies that are strewn in the path of the Saturday Club members and their families and yet among all sorts of raids and killings, two of them survive.
But who are they? And are they actually who they claimed to be for so long?
Ben Elton tries his very best to color his characters with shades that he has drawn from his personal life. The story is itself inspired by his father, who was Jewish, and a cousin of his father who was an adopted Aryan.
Ben Elton says that’s its a story he’s waited his whole life to tell. And despite the story seeming entirely implausible, the context was certainly delivered.
His writing about the slow but gradual stripping away of Jewish dignities was heartwrenching. There were times when each new page was hurtful. Though compelled to read on, they made me hope for an ending which would have been impossible given what history books have taught me in the past.
Ben Elton’s story would have been wonderful if it wasn’t weighed down by the expectations of a Holocaust memoir. Despite being more or less fiction, Two Brothers was unable to leave a genuine impact as did Anne Frank’s autobiographical diary. His story had too many twists and turns, like a Bollywood movie and too much drama without the expected tragedy.
It was engaging but it did take away from the reality of the events that occurred under Hitler’s reign. I was left wanting more.
Read what The Guardian has to say about this book for more insights.