I would say that Ken Follet is by far my favorite writer. He came to my attention in 2007 by Oprah Winfrey when she selected his book “The Pillars of the Earth” for her book club. When I picked up the book, I couldn’t put it down despite its 1000 pages. It was as she put it back then “a page turner”. Two years later I read the sequel “World Without End” and was reminded of how exciting reading for Ken Follet is.
Ken Follet writes history fiction, the first two novels I mentioned above addresses a middle-age England and shows the power struggle of the elite at a time where the Church dominated the political and social life in Europe. There are so much parallel lines to draw between then and today’s rise of Islam and state of Arabic world. As George Santayana once said “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”, we have obviously failed to learn anything.
That goes too for Ken Follet century trilogy, “Fall of Giants’, “Winder of the World” and soon to be released final instalment in the trilogy “Edge of Eternity”. In the first book he covers the state of events in World War I, in the second – the subject of this review – covers World War II, and the third one will be addressing the cold war.
Why do we fail to learn from History?
Winter of the World
I remember when they taught us history at school how they addressed World War II. It was a major chapter on modern history but cut down for a brief main points to memorise back then: The reason behind the eruption of the war, the major countries involved, and the results. It was never complimented with any fiction recommendation to read in order to grasp a better understanding of what happened at the time.
In comparison, in my Creative Writing and Critical Thinking MA, I had a course entitled “The Novel and History” that focused on World War II. I read many novels that gave me a closer understanding of what happened in different areas affected by the war such as the state of affairs in Poland prior of the German Invasion in “The Tin Drum” for Gunter Grass, or the life in the international settlement in China at the time of the Japanese invasion in “When We Were Orphans” for Kazuo Ishiguro.
Understanding history is never an easy task, but outlining it the way they teach it in our schools is a total failure. I personally believe that reading historical fiction is the best way to learn history and if you ask me to recommend the best fiction to understand World War II, I would say without hesitation “Winter of the World” for Ken Follet.
Brutality of war
In his previous books, Ken Follet never shies in showing the brutality of wars and conflict, but he tops himself in this book. There is nothing that matches the effect of the death of a dear one in the hands of his beloved. Follet knows that very well and used it in many incidents in the book. He toys with the read, keeps us hanging with a glimpse of hope that a certain character, who had gone through a brutal torture would make it and live, only to kill him abruptly showing us the insanity of human beings.
In a scene towards the beginning of the book, he successfully depicts the brutality of the Nazis in a concentration camp. He shows how corruption and hatred unite to punish a gay couple who owned a restaurant in Berlin at the time of the rise of the Nazis. A corrupted police officer forces the owner to sign off the restaurant to his brother by torturing his boyfriend in front of him. He blind fold the victim in a wired surrounded area and let savage dogs eat him alive in front of his boyfriend. When the boyfriend surrender and agrees to sign on his ownership in the restaurant in order to have the chance to hold his boyfriend who was brutally attacked, he kills the boyfriend in his hands.
In a similar incident he kills one of his major characters, Walter. Walter is a German who comes from an aristocratic family, fought in the front line for Germany in World War I, and opposed courageously the rise of the Nazis. He gets his brutally beaten in his old age and throws him at the doorstep of his home, only to die in the hands of wife.
There is no shortage of brutal scenes in the book, and that’s a good trick to give a glimpse of the horrors of the war. The most brutal and hard wrenching one I would say is the scene of Carla’s group rape. It is the most shocking brutal scene I have ever read that combines the ambivalence of hatred and love of humanity.
Ideologies and today’s events
The book shows us the rise and fall of Fascism in Europe. It highlights the conflict between communism, democracy and fascism. A deep ideological battle that is not far from today’s ideological battle in the middle east between religious fascism, nationalistic fascism and democracy. I guess that is a stage of a society maturity where it struggles to define the appropriate path for its future. Unfortunate this madness that precedes adulthood leaves a big scare behind it.
One thing that you can’t miss readying the book is seeing the similarities between the brutality of the Nazis towards the Jews and the brutality of Israel towards Palestinians today. It feels that no one has actually learnt from history and that we tend to repeat it more often than we think.
Human history is full of brutality and heroism. We can be mad and sane at the same time, we murder and we build. We never learn and learn much. We print our past with blood, but hope for a better future. I just hope that one day, we could put all that madness behind us, and champion love.