A Small Death in Lisbon by
hbk out July 99
Published by HarperCollins
In present-day Lisbon, police inspector Ze Coelho investigates the murder of a sexually promiscuous schoolgirl. In the 1940s, Klaus Felsen, a Berlin businessman, is co-opted into the SS and sent to Portugal to buy wolfram - an element which is essential to Germany's coming war against the Soviet Union. The Portuguese government, despite being ideologically sound, is just as happy to sell to the British as to the Reich.
It is in the nature of a murder investigation that its narrative moves backwards in time, from the moment of the corpse's discovery. War stories, broadly speaking, travel in the opposite direction. Thus, we start off knowing everything about Felsen's present, but nothing of his future; meanwhile, as Coelho pursues his murder case, we learn how his past, and that of his family and his country, have made him the man we first meet having his beard shaved off for charity. The two stories, told in alternating installments, gradually move towards each other, along paths of connection which are for a long time obscure, until they finally meet up in the 1990s.
Portugal's peculiar revolution of 1974 - peculiar because it was led by a military caste which had previously been associated with the authoritarian Right - is at the centre of A Small Death. It was a revolution of compromise, Wilson suggests, which succeeded in taking Portugal into the modern world, but which inevitably left much of the legacy of the nation's long fascist period unresolved.
This novel is sold as a "literary thriller," which immediately alerts the experienced reader to its main flaw - overwriting. At £9-99 for 440 hardback pages, it's good value, but it might have been a better book at 340 pages. The plot is over-complicated, and at the same time not, once its denouement becomes clear, all that remarkable.
Wilson's writing, however, is vivid in its individual scenes, despite the overall wordiness, and the history is fascinating - all the more so for being concerned with an arena of World War Two which has not already been done to death by thriller writers.
He is at his best when depicting characters who at first appear to be simply evil or amoral, but who, through the course of their interactions, are painstakingly revealed as for the most part ordinary human beings, making ordinary mistakes and committing ordinary sins. This is a timely contrast to the comfortingly simple one evil man view of world events, which, as recently demonstrated in the Balkans, Iraq and elsewhere, continues to be promoted by the official versions of history. Despite its minor faults, A Small Death is an engrossing and illuminating read, and one which reminds us that fiction can be a useful tool for exploring the dominant themes of an era, both dark and light.