The Losing Role by Steve Anderson is a touching yet painful story set in late 1944 that explores the evolution of an individual throughout a life fraught with inequity.
As the novel opens, the reader is immediately dropped into the middle of a firefight on the Eastern front of World War II. The protagonist, Max Kaspar, runs to take cover in an abandoned building with other German soldiers and local Axis aligned civilians. Here we learn that Max has a performance background as his compatriots request songs and impersonations. A German officer finds Kaspar at this locale and informs him he is being taken back to where he belongs. Max travels across Bavaria to meet with Captain Pielau and is informed that he is to be a part of Operation Greif, a plot to infiltrate American occupied territory by pretending to be American soldiers. As Max is an actor with excellent English speaking skills, he is to be a predominant player.
After a dubious practice run at a POW camp, Max and his compatriots are sent to the Western front donning American uniforms and driving American jeeps. Getting through enemy lines is rather easy, but as Operation Greif is quickly compromised, escaping back into Axis territory becomes exceedingly difficult. Max is separated from his three team members and finds shelter at a villa. He is forced to keep up his pretense while two American soldiers and three Belgian civilians occupy the villa. The five spend many days together in a seemingly peaceful commune including a beautiful Christmas Eve, but Christmas Day brings conflict and the war. History buffs will recognize several of the names used. Steve Anderson was very clever in weaving historical figures into his fictional interactions.
The immediate action at the start of the novel was a bit confusing at first. The initial scenes pushed forward very quickly and I had to reread the first two chapters to convince myself that I hadn’t missed anything. The author introduces Max through many quick conversations with a myriad of soldiers during his travels across Germany. This character exploration continues to be a trend throughout the book. Max’s personality is slowly revealed as he interacts with officers, soldiers, civilians, and American soldiers. We also learn about his past during his silent reflections; how he came to be a part of the war. It becomes clear the soldier’s uniform he wears is only one more costume the actor has worn.
This was a fictional tale set within the confines of a real-life event and the author had to write using boundaries set by history. Knowing from history that Operation Greif was a failure, it was captivating to watch how the protagonist dealt with being assigned to the campaign and then managing the fall out. Max’s personal reflections throughout the novel gave credence to his decisions. The flow of the novel played out very similarly to war. Some scenes, such as arguments and combat scenes, were fast paced and unexpected, while other scenes showed the lulls that soldiers experience. Every interaction with another character was suspenseful as predictability is not a luxury during war.
At first, the dialogue seemed clipped and put upon. However, as I continued to read and became more immersed in the wartime culture, the brevity between and lack of connection among characters made sense. Anderson used the dialogue as another method of having the reader experience the heightened emotion and wariness that accompanies a community under siege. The “put upon” feeling came from the fact that the majority of the characters speaking were not native English speakers. The conversations are sometimes hokey, but we learn later that this is how the German soldiers think Americans should talk. Once native speakers are introduced into the scene it becomes clear that the Germans chosen for Operation Greif are not as fluent as they imagine. Props to the author for writing dialogue that is so precise that it helps set the scene.
Easily my favorite part of the novel, mostly because it plucks at one’s heartstrings, was the Christmas Eve scene. The reader has spent the whole novel reading about Max Kapsar’s unfortunate lot in life prior to the war and the horrible events of war itself. On Christmas Eve disparity is forgotten as the strangers put aside all differences and celebrate. Their interaction is visibly strained, but still full of warmth.
The reader watches Max learn about himself, his choices, and how he will make his next step. He is not a hero, nor does he ever pretend to be. He is a survivalist. And though I wanted him to do the noble thing, as I have been taught to view soldiers as always doing the noble act in the face of hardship, he never does. He is human in the face of hardship and choses to continue living, but on his own terms.
I look forward to reading Steve Anderson’s other novels.