"The Secret Purposes"
(Reviewed by Debbie Lee Wesselmann SEP 5, 2005)
Although largely unknown in the United States, David Baddiel is a popular television figure in the United Kingdom, more recognized for his humor, both on screen and on the page, than for his serious literary endeavors. The Secret Purposes, a novel about a family torn apart by a World War II internment camp, aims to change all that. Isaac Fabian, the son of a rabbi and a professed Communist, and his German Christian wife Lulu emigrate from Königsberg to Cambridge during the beginning of the Nazi persecution of Jews. There, they and their young daughter Rebekka try to fit into the British culture that has rules almost as anti-Semitic as the country of their birth. For one, they are not allowed to speak German in public and must communicate in their native language only in whispers, in the privacy of the room they rent from a vigilant landlady. They are instructed not to wear the clothes of their home country, nor mention the dangers to Britain of the war in Europe. As though they are savages, they are lectured about being polite to the English since the Englishman "values good manners far more than he values evidence of wealth." Even more degrading, they must stand before a tribunal of high-ranking officials and defend, entirely in English, their reasons for coming to the UK as though the persecution of Isaac's ethnicity is not enough. Whereas the Nazis are malicious and cruel, the Brits are simply clueless in their patriotic arrogance.
Isaac is branded a class C, or dangerous, refugee for his Communist beliefs and Lulu, because she is non-Jewish and speaks better English, is classified as an A. As a result of this difference in status, the family is separated when the war escalates, and Isaac and thousands of other Jews and Germans are sent to an internment camp on the Isle of Man. There, the British assume that the internees are all national security threats. They make little distinction between the Jews and the Nazi Germans kept behind the barbed wire. Back in England, memos are sent out within the Ministry of Information that implies that the Jews are not innocents at the hands of the Nazis. One such memo falls on the desk of June Murray, a translator, who has been reading, in German, the heart-wrenching details of what is really going on. The directive prevents her from circulating the truth. A meeting with her supervisors only results in their deciding that her documents are untrustworthy propaganda. June arranges, through a series of deceptions, to interview those interned on the Isle of Man to provide testimonials that cannot be construed as propaganda. There, she meets Isaac. Meanwhile, in Cambridge, Lulu tries to gather another set of very different testimonials; she needs three from upstanding British citizens that attest to Isaac's good character so that he can be released from custody.
Baddiel has taken an incident from his family history––the internment of his grandfather–– and has expanded it into a novel that explores the lives of Jews living within the United Kingdom during World War II. In this world, desperation breeds duplicity. Information is scarce. One can become a traitor as easily as falling asleep. Decisions to act or to not act can have serious ramifications. Baddiel's characters cling to what they can, though, and dole out their support in calculated parcels. The premise of the novel is an excellent one, to explore a little known fact of history that provides a new dimension to what we already know, but Baddiel fails to take his novel beyond historical accuracy to something more vibrant and memorable. Despite his meticulous details and complexity of characterization, the author never manages to give his characters life except briefly, as in this early description of June: "She'd also had her hair cut, slightly longer than her usual high bob (she had been considering one of those finger waves that all the film stars had now, but had panicked at the last minute, thinking that it would be thought too attention-seeking for the Ministry)." Too often we are told what the characters think ("eventually he decided that the only way out was not to think of either June or Lulu, or love at all, but head in the opposite direction towards men and war and death") and what they feel ("guilt" is ever-present)––and the result is a mechanical manipulation of characters we are supposed to like but can't quite connect with. As a result, there is flatness where there should be a spark. That's not to say that this book is not interesting––it is––but that it doesn't fully realize its potential.
Ironically, the author adopts an occasional tone of condescension, much the way the British do unwittingly to the Jews,: "We have replaced God in our culture with Love, and the happy marriage is its holy grail, but in fact there is almost no chance of Love, as we are told to believe in it, surviving any lifelong sexual relationship. What survives is compromise, and they both made those." Thankfully, the author does not rely on this authorial voice to move his narrative, or it would be insufferable. His writing is best when it describes the details of everyday life within the context of the times. While the plights of Isaac, Lulu, and June might not move us, certainly the plights of their real-life counterparts do. This basis in historical fact gives this novel its significance because of what it reveals about racism, anti-Semitism, wrongful persecution, and the intentional withholding of information during wartime, issues that are as relevant today as they were during World War II.
- Amazon readers rating: from 1 review
Read a chapter excerpt from Secret Purposes at HarperCollins.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- The UK Comedy Guide, Chortle, on David Baddiel
- Comeditan Profile: David Baddiel
- Times Online article by David Baddiel
- BBC on David Baddiel and The Secret Purpose
- Telegraph review of The Secret Purposes
- Guardian Unlmited review of The Secret Purposes
- Review of Books collection of reviews on The Secret Purposes
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About the Author:
David Baddiel was born in 1964. He is a British comeditan and novelist. His first venture into the world of comedy came in 1982, when he wrote and acted in a 6th form play, which ended up getting him into considerable trouble. From there he went on to King's College Cambridge, where he became vice president of the famous Footlights drama society. In 1986 he graduated with a double-first in English Literature.
He and his girlfiends, Morwenna Banks, have a young daughter, Dolly, who was born in 2001. They live in London.