An engrossing novel of WWII heroics aimed at saving a certain man from the death chambers of Auschwitz. The US wants him so bad it’s willing to kidnap him out of that horror actually, because he has information vital to the Allies war effort. He has the knowledge necessary to build the atomic bomb.
The One Man
by Andrew Gross
2016 / 432 pages
read by Edoardo Ballerini 12h 45m
I wish this were a true story or based on a true story because it certainly is suspenseful. It actually feels a bit like a “based on the true story of …” kind of thing. But none of it is. Or at least nothing I’ve read about the book or about WWII science says anything like that.
Alfred Mendl, a leading German physicist, his family and other Jewish people from Lisbon, thinks he is en route to freedom when their ship is rerouted and ends up in a French detention camp. From there it’s but a short train ride to Auschwitz. The trouble is Mendl is one of a handful of scientists who have information about the creation of an atomic bomb. His papers are destroyed but he remembers. And he teaches what he knows to a young chess champion named Leo, another prisoner.
Meanwhile the US has been working to get these passengers, because of Mendl, out of danger. That first plan was hijacked and that’s how they landed in France. Now they’ve decided to send Nathan Blum, an escapee to the US from Poland, into Auschwitz to see if he can kidnap Mendl and get him out. That’s that’s the outline.
Certain details are included so I suppose it is an historical novel, but it’s mostly stuff like the Farben plant was next to Auschwitz as was Buchenvald. and there were lines for everything and brutal guards who instilled the unremitting fear of what the prisoners knew by this time was going to be their fate. (I did read Ravensbruk by Sarah Helm back in May – about the women’s prison.) There are many books which have detailed information about the camps and I would hardly call reading those to be “extensive research.” Gross simply used this horror to develop a fiction. And much of the fiction is on the lowest denominator common to WWII concentration camp books, the “how gory can it get” level.
All that said, it is a pretty good imaginary tale – original and lots of suspense (in part because we don’t know the specific ending – we know how the war ends for the world, but not for these characters. And the characters are sympathetic and well enough drawn for the reader to care about.
The sections dealing with the escape plan from the side of Mendl the physicist and his young protege a champion chess player along with the side of Blum who is assigned the task of getting Mendel out) are sometimes broken with sections dealing with the people working to get them out as well as sections from the Nazi point of view. This fairly common device worked will in adding characters, interest and tension.
On the down side much of the story seems contrived and the romance is a bit pulpish and there are just a few too many lucky coincidences.