The book follows Erik, an orphan with a tumultuous past, who, once made a sub-cadet of the German Navy, saves a man from being brutally beaten. The man Erik labels a ‘tramp’ unawares turns out to be the chief of the German military intelligence, Wilhelm Canaris. Spymaster Canaris takes Erik under his wing and gives him the moniker Cesare, inspired by the young man’s skill to overcome any barrier. The moniker will be an echo of Cesare’s purpose and popularity throughout the book, with many seeing him as the ‘Magician’. Canaris’s controversial persona serves Erik’s evolution as a protagonist, while he hides and protects Jews from the Gestapo.
The forces of the Third Reich seem unable to touch Cesare, in his pursuit of justice on the background of a war-torn Europe, where darkness and cruelty reign. But when the half-Jewish woman he is in love with is taken away to the hidden ghetto of Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, Cesare’s efforts shift towards finding and saving her from what is widely known as just another stop to Auschwitz. Reaching Lisa, whom he has loved since a teenager, empowers Erik and further proves that he is worthy of the moniker Cesare.
A dark historical fiction with a gripping plot and a complex set of characters, Cesare has the enthralling style of Erik Larson, the unrestrained detailing of Julian Barnes and the emotional nuance in depicting war of Haruki Murakami. The protagonist is perhaps a little too protected by the unfolding of events, sometimes making the reader sigh in disbelief at his constant victories, but his humanity and seemingly ordinary personality manage to make up for it. Everything that happens in the book is haunted by violence, obscurity and hopelessness, making even the most tender scenes fade into the chaos and brutality of war-torn Germany. There is a continued sense of heaviness as the story unfolds, leaving you with a dirt-like taste on your tongue and a need to hide between your shoulders.
The descriptions are vivid and unforgiving, the language playing a crucial role in building the heartache that pervades the novel. The story opens with Cesare and ends with Erik, evoking a sense of cyclicality to his journey, a rebirth as his actions are coming to an end. Lisa is a strong and ever-present character, who always guides Cesare’s moves, even when they do not concern her. She is a queer, half-Jewish woman, whose voice is loud and daring to the very end of the story, despite her tragic character arc. Cesare’s moniker shines through the heavily consonant German names of Gestapo and SS officers, reminding of Roman emperor Caesar, whose name meant ‘leader’. Although not a proclaimed leader, Erik succeeds through not being extraordinary, to prove that justice and love are worth pursuing, even in the context of mass-genocide and authoritarianism.
Words by Eliza Lita
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