Review: LUMEN by Ben Pastor

I’ve owned this book for over three years without reading it but I’m trying to clear the older titles from my TBR list. I didn’t make a note of who recommended it but I’ll guess it was my virtual friend Norman, whose tips I usually find worthwhile especially when it comes to historical fiction.

lumenLUMEN isn’t something I’d recommend to die-hard whodunnit fans. It does have a couple of supposedly puzzling deaths but they’re both pretty easy to figure out and they don’t really hold the reader’s full attention. However, here the tropes of the crime genre are really only a backdrop for an exploration of morality in a time of war and on that front the book really is quite gripping.

It is late 1939 and Martin Bora is a young Captain in the German army which has just marched its way proprietorially into Poland. As one of the somewhat eclectic duties of an intelligence officer Bora is tasked with looking into the shooting death of a Catholic nun thought to be able to perform miracles. The investigation is hampered by a widespread unwillingness to talk that is not unnatural given the circumstances.

Like Leo Demidov in Tom Rob Smith’s CHILD 44 Martin Bora is, at the outset of the novel, fairly sure of his place in the world. He believes in the aims of Nazi Germany and has had no difficulty carrying out even the grimmer of his duties as a soldier. But as LUMEN progresses he starts to question the morality of some of the things he sees and is ordered to do which makes him doubt the ideology and actions of the regime. Pastor has depicted this crisis of faith in a way that allows the reader to gain a real appreciation for how agonising it is for Bora to no longer be able to believe in the things which he has ‘known’ to be true.

His questioning is fueled by a mixture of personal introspection and some not-so-gentle prodding from people around him. The first glimpse he has that things are not ‘right’ is when he sees his old piano teacher, who is Jewish, lugging rocks as part of a work gang and he can see no sense in this. Then there is the American priest who is responsible for verifying whether or not the now deceased Mother Kazimierza might qualify for sainthood with whom Bora strikes up a strained relationship. Father Malecki is quite restrained in the way he probes Bora’s beliefs and forces him to consider and reconsider what he is seeing and being asked to do. Though at least semi-lapsed from the Catholicism of his upbringing Bora does eventually turn to the priest as a confessor and as someone who can help guide him through his torment. What I liked most about this depiction of major character change is that it does not depict an easy, straightforward path to righteousness. It is a constant struggle for Bora, one that hasn’t concluded by the end of he novel, and it is in the difficulties and uncertainty that the credibility of the characterisation lies.

The one odd note to LUMEN is that for a book set partly in a convent there’s a heck of a lot of sex talk and some of these passages are very awkwardly written (perhaps influenced by her 30 ears living in the US rather than the author’s Italian upbringing?). I guess Bora’s boss’ obsession isn’t so much sex as it is the procreation of Germany with racially pure cannon fodder, but either way he seems way too keen to give bizarre instructions about how to avoid ‘involuntary loss of seminal fluid’ and achieve the right kinds of pregnancies. I thought at first these were an attempt at humour but ultimately they scanned more strange than funny to me. Bora’s flatmate (a fellow soldier of higher rank) meanwhile seems to have no occupation other than bonking (and as the nuns who taught me always said would be the case, this practice brings him nothing but trouble) but it is Bora’s own lack of access to his wife and subsequent loss of control that provides the most cringe-worthy passage of the novel. I’m not going to quote it here but if you fancy a chuckle the passage has been quoted in full on the book’s page at Clerical Detectives.

Overall though I am glad to have read LUMEN. It is so easy with hindsight for us to be full of moral superiority about abhorrent war time practices and the disgusting belief systems that prompted them, but few of us these days have any real clue how we would behave in such circumstances and it is good, indeed essential, to be reminded that not everyone is born righteous. I can’t say that I liked Martin Bora but I found him utterly fascinating and would highly recommend the story of his moral awakening.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Bitter Lemon Press [2011]
ISBN 9781904738695
Length 321 pages
Format eBook (Kindle)
Book Series #1 in the Captain Martin Bora series

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2 Responses to Review: LUMEN by Ben Pastor

  1. Col says:

    A new author to me. I like the setting, but do I need another book at this moment in time…..no! I ought to read my Bernie Gunther’s instead.

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  2. Bernadette – This does sound as though it’s a powerful exploration of right and wrong, of what’s ‘moral’ and of how that all fit in at that time. And what I like about it is that these characters don’t seem ‘over the top.’ Sometimes when I’ve read books that explore these issues, the characters are almost melodramatic; doesn’t sound that way here. Glad you thought this was a good read for the most part.

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