“ Author: Ira Levin / Format: Paperback / Genre: Modern & Contemporary Fiction /Title: The Boys from Brazil / ISBN 13: 9781849015905 / ISBN 10: 1849015905 / 288 Pages / Book is published 2011-07-21 by Corsair / Alternative title: The Boys From Brazil: Introduction by Chelsea Cain / Alternative ISBN 10: 1849015902 „
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Once upon a time, a very long time ago a friend of mine got me to watch a film called The Boys from Brazil. It contained two actors who, in my naive youth, I had never heard of: some bloke called Laurence Olivier and another called Gregory Peck. I can remember sitting there for the whole of the film's running time absolutely stunned, gripped by this fantastic tale. It's taken me about 30 years to get there, but recently, I finally got round to reading the book on which it was based. I'm pleased to say that it is equally stunning.
The Boys from Brazil is set in the 1970s and is based around Yakov Liebermann, a Holocaust survivor who has made it his life's mission to track down former Nazis and bring them to justice. When an acquaintance dies in mysterious circumstances, he uncovers a mystifying plot to kill a series of 65 year old men, who seemingly have nothing in common. The leader of this plot is none other than Dr Josef Mengele, the notorious Angel of Death, and he believes that murdering these old men will somehow bring about the rise of the Fourth Reich.
Straight from the off, author Ira Levin grabs your attention with a brilliant story and never once does he let up. From the opening sequences which lay out the basics of Mengele's plot through to the pleasingly symmetrical finale (which raises some interesting moral issues), you find yourself fascinated by the world Levin creates and the characters he populates it with.
Ira Levin certainly knows how to tell a fast-paced tale which has no unnecessary verbiage or wasted words. Not that this is a superficial story; there's plenty of meat on the bones, plenty of convincing ideas and characterisation to keep things going. It's just that he doesn't feel the need to pad out the book unnecessarily. He sets up his characters, plotlines and ideas quickly and efficiently and moves everything along at a pace which feels just right. You certainly never feel as though the book is dragging, but (just as importantly) neither do you feel it is unnecessarily rushed.
Characters (both real and fictional) are well-constructed. Josef Mengele is cold and calculating, but has a certain charm and panache. He is not a simple comic book style Nazi (all ruthless incompetence), but has a flawed, contradictory nature: ruthless and single-minded; cultured and intelligent. This leads you to question the concept of "evil" and how it can easily be disguised behind a cultured exterior.
Of course, in the case of Mengele, Levin is working from facts and able to create a construct which matches the real life Herr Doktor. Yet, his fictional creation, Nazi Hunter Yakov Liebermann, is just as convincing. OK, it's fairly clear that Liebermann is based on real-life Nazi Hunter Simon Wiesenthal, but even allowing for this, Liebermann bursts off the page and moves well beyond the confines of a fictional character. He feels real; he talks and acts like a real person and he has the same weaknesses. As such, despite being a fictional tale, The Boys from Brazil feels all too plausible and realistic.
If there is one disappointment, it's the ending. This is the one place where the pace drops and, considering what has gone before it, it's regrettable that the finale is something of an anti-climax. Although (as noted above) the symmetry with the opening is well-worked, the actual content is rather a let-down. Small wonder, then, that the makers of the film chose to change the ending for something both punchier and shorter.
I have read some reviews which criticise the book for being rather old-fashioned, clichéd and unimaginative. These criticisms are, for very different reasons slightly unfair. First of all, the book is now 34 years old, in fact, so it's inevitable that parts of it have dated. Some of the language used sounds a little false to our ears now, as do some of the descriptions and the ideas expressed. Yet, place it within the context of its time and it's perfect. Whilst some parts might have dated, the plot (surely the most important part of any book?) is just as thrilling now as when the title was first published.
As for clichéd and unimaginative? Well, that's coming at the issue from the wrong perspective. Sure, the idea of cloning and genetic manipulation may now have been done to death in 2012, but back in 1978 when the book was first published, this was ground-breaking stuff, way beyond the experience or knowledge of most people. The book's central premise might not have quite the same shock value as it did on publication, but it still has the power to make you think about some pretty big and important issues, whilst also keeping you highly entertained.
It's fair to say that I haven't enjoyed reading a book this much in a long, long time. I raced through it, finishing the whole thing in less than two days. Partly this is because it's a relatively short (certainly by the standards of today's bloated novels). Mostly, though, it was because I was enjoying it so much that I could scarcely put it down.
I got The Boys from Brazil on Kindle for the bargain price of just 99p. I confess the main reason I bought it was because it was on a special one-day promotion on Amazon. The normal price is around £6 (although the paperback can be picked up second hand for a few quid if you can find it). Having read it, I can now safely say that I would happily have paid full price for the Kindle version. It's a cracking thriller and a great read.
The Boys from Brazil
Pan Books, 1978
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012