Ken Follett's second installment in the epic Century trilogy is every bit as potent as the opening opus, Fall of Giants. Continuing the stories of the five families introduced in Fall, the novel picks up in 1933 as Carla von Ulrich, 11, feels the horror of Nazi encroachment in Germany and proves a staunch resister, while her older brother, Erik, becomes an infatuated soldier.
Carla knew her parents were about to have a row. The second she walked into the kitchen she felt the hostility, like the bone-deep cold of the wind that blew through the streets of Berlin before a February snowstorm. She almost turned and walked back out again.
It was unusual for them to fight. Mostly they were affectionate— too much so. Carla cringed when they kissed in front of other people. Her friends thought it was strange: their parents did not do that. She had said that to her mother, once. Mother had laughed in a pleased way and said: “The day after our wedding, your father and I were separated by the Great War.” She had been born English, though you could hardly tell. “I stayed in London while he came home to Germany and joined the army.” Carla had heard this story many times, but Mother never tired of telling it. “We thought the war would last three months, but I didn’t see him again for five years. All that time I longed to touch him. Now I never tire of it.”
Father was just as bad. “Your mother is the cleverest woman I ever met,” he had said here in the kitchen just a few days ago. “That’s why I married her. It had nothing to do with. . .” He had trailed off, and Mother and he had giggled conspiratorially, as if Carla at the age of eleven knew nothing about sex. It was so embarrassing.
But once in a while they had a quarrel. Carla knew the signs. And a new one was about to erupt.
They were sitting at opposite ends of the kitchen table. Father was somberly dressed in a dark gray suit, starched white shirt, and black satin tie. He looked dapper, as always, even though his hair was receding and his waistcoat bulged a little beneath the gold watch chain. His face was frozen in an expression of false calm. Carla knew that look. He wore it when one of the family had done something that angered him.
He held in his hand a copy of the weekly magazine for which Mother worked, The Democrat. She wrote a column of political and diplomatic gossip under the name of Lady Maud. Father began to read aloud. “‘Our new chancellor, Herr Adolf Hitler, made his debut in diplomatic society at President Hindenburg’s reception.’”
The president was the head of state, Carla knew. He was elected, but he stood above the squabbles of day-to-day politics, acting as referee. The chancellor was the premier. Although Hitler had been made chancellor, his Nazi Party did not have an overall majority in the Reichstag—the German parliament—so, for the present, the other parties could restrain Nazi excesses.
Father spoke with distaste, as if forced to mention something repellent, like sewage. “‘He looked uncomfortable in a formal tailcoat.’”
Carla’s mother sipped her coffee and looked out of the window to the street, as if interested in the people hurrying to work in scarves and gloves. She, too, was pretending to be calm, but Carla knew she was just waiting for her moment.
The maid, Ada, was standing at the counter in an apron, slicing cheese. She put a plate in front of Father, but he ignored it. “‘Herr Hitler was evidently charmed by Elisabeth Cerruti, the cultured wife of the Italian ambassador, in a rose-pink velvet gown trimmed with sable.’”
Mother always wrote about what people were wearing. She said it helped the reader picture them. She herself had fine clothes, but times were hard and she had not bought anything new for years. This morning she looked slim and elegant in a navy blue cashmere dress that was probably as old as Carla.
“‘Signora Cerruti, who is Jewish, is a passionate Fascist, and they talked for many minutes. Did she beg Hitler to stop whipping up hatred of Jews?’” Father put the magazine down on the table with a slap.
Here it comes, Carla thought.
“You realize that will infuriate the Nazis,” he said.
“I hope so,” Mother said coolly. “The day they’re pleased with what I write, I shall give it up.”
“They’re dangerous when riled.”
Mother’s eyes flashed anger. “Don’t you dare condescend to me, Walter. I know they’re dangerous—that’s why I oppose them.”
“I just don’t see the point of making them irate.”
“You attack them in the Reichstag.” Father was an elected parliamentary representative for the Social Democratic Party.
“I take part in a reasoned debate.”
This is typical, Carla thought. Father was logical, cautious, law-abiding. Mother had style and humor. He got his way by quiet persistence, she with charm and cheek. They would never agree.
Father added: “I don’t drive the Nazis mad with fury.”
“Perhaps that’s because you don’t do them much harm.”
Father was irritated by her quick wit. His voice became louder. “And you think you damage them with jokes?”
“I mock them.”
“And that’s your substitute for argument.”
“I believe we need both.”
Father became angrier. “But, Maud, don’t you see how you’re putting yourself and your family at risk?”
“On the contrary. The real danger is not to mock the Nazis. What would life be like for our children if Germany became a Fascist state?”
This kind of talk made Carla feel queasy. She could not bear to hear that the family was in danger. Life must go on as it always had. She wished she could sit in this kitchen for an eternity of mornings, with her parents at opposite ends of the pine table, Ada at the counter, and her brother, Erik, thumping around upstairs, late again. Why should anything change?
She had listened to political talk every breakfast-time of her life and she thought she understood what her parents did, and how they planned to make Germany a better place for everyone. But lately they had begun to talk in a different way. They seemed to think that a terrible danger loomed, but Carla could not quite imagine what it was.
Father said: “God knows I’m doing everything I can to hold back Hitler and his mob.”
“And so am I. But, when you do it, you believe you’re following a sensible course.” Mother’s face hardened in resentment. “And when I do it I’m accused of putting the family at risk.”
“And with good reason,” said Father. The row was only just getting started, but at that moment Erik came down, clattering like a horse on the stairs, and lurched into the kitchen with his school satchel swinging from his shoulder. He was thirteen, two years older than Carla, and there were unsightly black hairs sprouting from his upper lip. When they were small, Carla and Erik had played together all the time; but those days were over, and since he had grown so tall he had pretended to think she was stupid and childish. In fact she was smarter than he, and knew about a lot of things he did not understand, such as women’s monthly cycles.
“What was that last tune you were playing?” he said to Mother.
The piano often woke them in the morning. It was a Steinway grand—inherited, like the house itself, from Father’s parents. Mother played in the morning because, she said, she was too busy the rest of the day and too tired in the evening. This morning she had performed a Mozart sonata, then a jazz tune. “It’s called ‘Tiger Rag,’” she told Erik. “Do you want some cheese?”
“Jazz is decadent,” Erik said.
“Don’t be silly.”
Ada handed Erik a plate of cheese and sliced sausage, and he began to shovel it in. Carla thought his manners were dreadful.
Father looked severe. “Who’s been teaching you this nonsense, Erik?”“Hermann Braun says that jazz isn’t music, just Negroes making a noise.” Hermann was Erik’s best friend; his father was a member of the Nazi Party.
“Hermann should try to play it.” Father looked at Mother, and his face softened. She smiled at him. He went on: “Your mother tried to teach me ragtime, many years ago, but I couldn’t master the rhythm.”
Mother laughed. “It was like trying to get a giraffe to roller-skate.”
The fight was over, Carla saw with relief. She began to feel better. She took some black bread and dipped it in milk.
But now Erik wanted an argument. “Negroes are an inferior race,” he said defiantly.
“I doubt that,” Father said patiently. “If a Negro boy were brought up in a nice house full of books and paintings, and sent to an expensive school with good teachers, he might turn out to be smarter than you.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Erik protested.
Mother put in: “Don’t call your father ridiculous, you foolish boy.” Her tone was mild: she had used up her anger on Father. Now she just sounded wearily disappointed. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, and neither does Hermann Braun.”
Erik said: “But the Aryan race must be superior—we rule the world!”
“Your Nazi friends don’t know any history,” Father said. “The Ancient Egyptians built the pyramids when Germans were living in caves. Arabs ruled the world in the Middle Ages—the Muslims were doing algebra when German princes could not write their own names. It’s nothing to do with race.”
Carla frowned and said: “What is it to do with, then?”
Father looked at her fondly. “That’s a very good question, and you’re a bright girl to ask it.” She glowed with pleasure at his praise. “Civilizations rise and fall—the Chinese, the Aztecs, the Romans—but no one really knows why.”
“Eat up, everyone, and put your coats on,” Mother said. “It’s getting late.”
Father pulled his watch out of his waistcoat pocket and looked at it with raised eyebrows. “It’s not late.”
“I’ve got to take Carla to the Francks’ house,” Mother said. “The girls’ school is closed for a day—something about repairing the furnace—so Carla’s going to spend today with Frieda.”
Frieda Franck was Carla’s best friend. Their mothers were best friends, too. In fact, when they were young, Frieda’s mother, Monika, had been in love with Father—a hilarious fact that Frieda’s grandmother had revealed one day after drinking too much Sekt.
Father said: “Why can’t Ada look after Carla?”
“Ada has an appointment with the doctor.”
Carla expected Father to ask what was wrong with Ada, but he nodded as if he already knew, and put his watch away. Carla wanted to ask, but something told her she should not. She made a mental note to ask Mother later. Then she immediately forgot about it.
Father left first, wearing a long black overcoat. Then Erik put on his cap—perching it as far back on his head as it would go without falling off, as was the fashion among his friends—and followed Father out of the door.
Carla and her mother helped Ada clear the table. Carla loved Ada almost as much as she loved her mother. When Carla was little, Ada had taken care of her full-time, until she was old enough to go to school, for Mother had always worked. Ada was not married yet. She was twenty-nine and homely-looking, though she had a lovely kind smile. Last summer she had had a romance with a policeman, Paul Huber, but it had not lasted.
Carla and her mother stood in front of the mirror in the hall and put on their hats. Mother took her time. She chose a dark blue felt, with a round crown and a narrow brim, the type all the women were wearing, but she tilted hers at a different angle, making it look chic. As Carla put on her knitted wool cap, she wondered whether she would ever have Mother’s sense of style. Mother looked like a goddess of war, her long neck and chin and cheekbones carved out of white marble; beautiful, yes, but definitely not pretty. Carla had the same dark hair and green eyes, but looked more like a plump doll than a statue. Carla had once accidentally overheard her grandmother say to Mother: “Your ugly duckling will grow into a swan, you’ll see.” Carla was still waiting for it to happen.
When Mother was ready, they went out. Their home stood in a row of tall, gracious town houses in the Mitte district, the old center of the city, built for high-ranking ministers and army officers such as Carla’s grandfather, who had worked at the nearby government buildings.
Carla and her mother rode a tram along Unter den Linden, then took the S train from Friedrich Strasse to the Zoo Station. The Francks lived in the southwestern suburb of Schöneberg.
Carla was hoping to see Frieda’s brother Werner, who was fourteen. She liked him. Sometimes Carla and Frieda imagined they each married the other’s brother, and were next-door neighbors, and their children were best friends. It was just a game to Frieda, but Carla was secretly serious. Werner was handsome and grown-up and not a bit silly like Erik. In the dollhouse in Carla’s bedroom, the mother and father sleeping side by side in the miniature double bed were called Carla and Werner, but no one knew that, not even Frieda.
Frieda had another brother, Axel, seven, but he had been born with spina bifida, and had to have constant medical care. He lived in a special hospital on the outskirts of Berlin.
Mother was preoccupied on the journey. “I hope this is going to be all right,” she muttered, half to herself, as they got off the train.
“Of course it will,” Carla said. “I’ll have a lovely time with Frieda.”
“I didn’t mean that. I’m talking about my paragraph about Hitler.”
“Are we in danger? Was Father right?”
“Your father is usually right.”
© 2012 by Ken Follett. Reprinted with permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Group USA