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Review: While the Music Played, by Nathaniel Lande
Blackstone, 2020. 437 pp. $30

About halfway through this novel, sometime in 1940, the protagonist’s best friend asks him, “Max, exactly how stupid are you?” Since I’d been wondering the same thing for a couple hundred pages, I had to laugh.

Lande aims to tell how the Holocaust unfolded in Czechoslovakia, especially in Terezín (Theresienstadt), but Max Mueller is a rickety vehicle for that story. What fourteen-year-old growing up in Prague during those catastrophic years would not know what the Gestapo did for a living? How can Max, who counts Jews as his closest friends, not know what a rabbi is?

Further, when he asks these pat questions, an adult tells him he’s getting good at conducting interviews. (Max makes his inquiries as a would-be reporter; the power of a free press is a theme that Lande swings at the reader like a two-by-four.) Throw in that pianist Max, before he volunteers to live in Terezín, was somehow, at age twelve, the best piano tuner in Prague; that this job led him to befriend Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking Nazi intelligence officer; and that Max’s father, Viktor, a famous orchestra conductor, befriends Heydrich too, gets attached to his staff, and uses his alleged influence to mitigate the Holocaust when he can. I don’t think so.

Heydrich, as he appeared around 1940 (courtesy Bundesarchiv, via Wikimedia Commons)

Lande relies heavily on figures like Heydrich, Winston Churchill, Hitler, the rabbi and thinker Leo Baeck, and Raoul Wallenberg. But the narrative embracing them proceeds without tension or conflict to speak of, in which the villains pull punches right and left, and the characters are opinions, placards without inner lives. Instead of natural dialogue, While the Music Played offers lectures, which is how Max’s cluelessness comes in handy. People are always informing him, and he’s remarkably slow to learn.

It’s not just that the lectures include state secrets, propping up the conceit that places a young boy at the epicenter of history. These information dumps do no service to the themes involved, which include politics, history, the nature of Judaism, and philosophy; the most breathtakingly glib treatment concerns Heydrich. Heydrich’s father was a composer, and Lande invokes that lineage to portray the son as a music lover too, which allows Max to wonder how the man whose passion he shares can also appear to sanction objectionable policies.

The power of music despite degradation and suffering and the disconnect between a cultured Germany and its murderous activities are worthy themes. But Lande could have written them by, say, giving Max a beloved piano teacher who turns out to be a rabid racist and ultranationalist. Rather, the author has chosen to illustrate his themes with historical “stars,” who make up such an improbable constellation, you have the feeling that the novel takes place in an alternate universe.

To return to Heydrich, known as “Hangman Heydrich” by the people he oppressed, Nazi contemporaries described him as “diabolical” and “icy.” Just what you’d expect from one of the two or three most ruthless figures in the Third Reich: the head of the SD, or Sicherheitsdienst, a rival security service to the SS, Heinrich Himmler’s organization, with whom Heydrich had a famous power struggle. Heydrich framed top generals to destroy their careers, masterminded Kristallnacht, devised the Einsatzgruppen (the death squads sent east), and convened the top-secret Wannsee Conference, which codified the until-then haphazard policy of the Final Solution and organized its further implementation, a fact that only emerged after the war.

He would never have befriended Max, “bargained” with his father, or even hired him. More likely, he’d have had the Muellers killed, if he sensed free-thinking or disloyalty (and they’re none too swift at dissembling). In any event, he certainly wouldn’t have told Max in summer 1939 that Germany was about to invade Poland, or conveniently dropped the news that the Final Solution was coming, leaving Max, ever breathlessly inquisitive, to wonder what that meant.

While reading, I went back and forth as to whether the narrative intends this innocence, taking a childlike worldview. You have to wonder about a fictional atmosphere in which nobody even thinks about sex, let alone has any; nobody swears; and where nineteen people in twenty have only good intentions. Lande’s characters love (or hate) on sight, escape fist-shaking villains with regularity, succeed at whatever they turn their hands to, and receive much-needed medical supplies and food by pulling invisible strings. Toward the teenage characters, adults are remarkably pliant and encouraging, acceding to all demands, enlisting them in the fight against Nazism without hesitation, and offering fulsome praise for all they say or do, as with the question about rabbis. But teenagers don’t act the way Lande portrays them and probably wouldn’t recognize themselves in this narrative, whose unreality feels neither whimsical nor compelling.

I think that historical novelists have a duty to history, to grasp what the record means even as they reinterpret it or blur its actuality. There’s nothing wrong with fantasy or alternate history, but this novel fits neither category; and its careless, superficial approach trivializes its subject.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher, in return for an honest review.