Jonathan Steinberg

Two little boys, one little toy

Her novel of a lifelong friendship set against the backdrop of the Holocaust is a beautiful, moving work of art

Two little boys,  one little toy
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The Gustav Sonata

Rose Tremain

Chatto, pp. 256, £

Rose Tremain sets the true story of Police Captain Paul Grüninger, commander of the Swiss border force in Canton Saint Gallen, at the core of this powerful novel. Grüninger helped hundreds — some sources say thousands — of Austrian Jews fleeing the Nazis in 1938–1939 to enter Switzerland illegally. After a long trial he was dismissed in disgrace, deprived of his pension and forced to pay court fees. His family was destitute and treated as traitors. He died in 1972, penniless and forgotten.

Tremain’s fictional Grüninger, Erich Perle, marries a simple peasant girl, who suffers a miscarriage and cannot forgive her husband for ruining her life for the Jews. He dies before the end of the war. Around the tragedy of the righteous man, Tremain weaves his estrangement from his wife, and his son Gustav, a reserved little boy. She describes the dreariness of Switzerland just after the war, the conventions of Swiss life and the damage that unloving parents can inflict.

Gustav at six has already inherited a life of poverty, bitterness and joylessness. He has only one toy, a tin train with faces of people at the windows. He learns not to complain or ask for love because he gets none. At nursery school, he meets Anton who cannot stop crying. The teacher brings Gustav over to be Anton’s friend, and that determines the two lives. The awfulness of childhood has rarely been so beautifully caught.

The story unfolds in Matzlingen, an imaginary Swiss town of no great distinction and in the undramatic lowland of Switzerland. Anton, a gifted child, plays the piano so well that his ambitious parents enter him in competitions, which he never wins because of his nerves. Behind the plot, the horrors of the second world war, the awareness of the Holocaust and the pride of the Swiss in their self-discipline when surrounded by enemies form the backdrop. The two boys, born in 1942, are 60 by the end.

The three sections of the book follow the sonata form: Part One — the five years from 1947 to 1952; Part Two — the five years from 1937 to 1942; Part Three — the decade 1992 to 2002 .‘The Gustav Sonata’ is the name Anton gives to his composition at the end of their odyssey. Homosexuality repressed and expressed runs parallel to very intense and beautifully described heterosexual passions. Every character in the book has an almost palpable identity.

Tremain exhibits all the techniques that a very experienced novelist can deploy, and there may be an element of perfectionism that renders the structures and careful balances of plot a bit artificial; but one characteristic — a deep compassion for the suffering of her characters — makes this novel a beautiful and moving work of art.