The Second Son

  • Jonathan Rabb
  • Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
  • 294 pp.

Tom Glenn reviews this final book of Rabb's trilogy, set during the Spanish Civil War.

Reviewed by Tom Glenn

Terrified men mean to meet death on their own terms. Fear makes men cower. Terror gives them strength.

Thus begins the climactic section of Jonathan Rabb’s The Second Son, as Kriminal-Oberkommisar Nicolai Hoffner completes his odyssey through a Spain torn by civil war and learns the fate of both his sons.

Hoffner, forcibly removed from the Berlin police establishment because he is half Jewish, has lost his sons. His first-born, Sascha, has changed his name, hidden his Jewish roots, and joined the Nazi ranks. The younger boy, Georg, has disappeared while filming the 1936 “People’s Olympics” in Barcelona. Shortly thereafter, Hoffner flies secretly to Spain to search for Georg as Franco and his fascist forces invade from Morocco and move north. Hoffner’s journey carries him through opium dens of Barcelona westward across Spain to Badajoz on the Portuguese border. He travels through districts held by the Loyalists and deep into rebel territory. Before his eyes, republican Spain begins its slow death.

A quarter of the way through the novel, Hoffner encounters Mila, a woman doctor who, for reasons of her own, accompanies Hoffner in his westward trek. Worn down by combat and bloodshed, the police inspector and the doctor come to depend on one another. In fascist-held sectors, Hoffner passes himself off as a Nazi, pretends to know secrets to gain access to other secrets, and survives battles and a bloody beating. Little by little, he discovers how resourceful the gamey Georg has been in his own endeavor — a mission different from anything Hoffner suspected.

Although The Second Son is the final book in a trilogy begun with Rosa (2005) and continued with Shadow and Light (2010), the novel stands alone. The two earlier books focus on Hoffner’s police investigations, first of a series of murders that are reminiscent of the 1919 drowning of Rosa Luxemburg and, second, on the seamy side of the German film industry. Both stress the rise of Nazism and foreshadow the Holocaust. Unlike the first two books, The Second Son centers on personal struggle. The startling end of the novel (and the trilogy) is not happy but hopeful, and the resolution of Hoffner’s relationship with Mila, the last of a series of unexpected plot twists, feels satisfyingly right.

A historian-turned-novelist, Rabb writes with the authority that comes from sure-handed research done on the ground in Germany and Spain. For some readers, Rabb’s research might get in the way, for he offers intriguing information that his protagonist most likely cannot know. We learn, for example, that the name Zaragoza is a corruption of Caesaraugusta; the city was named after the Roman Emperor Octavian who assumed the name Caesar Augustus. Such shifts away from his characters’ consciousness to splice in juicy background information sometimes pulled me out of the story. I didn’t object; other readers might.

Far more jarring was Rabb’s sloppy craftsmanship. He is fond of static constructions (on one page he uses “there was” six times), and his emotional vocabulary is limited. Rabb repeatedly refers to people looking at each other, having the characters  “stare” at one another six times in a page and a half in the all-important denouement.

That said, Rabb’s focus on history allows him to explore the tension between personal lives and the sweep of public events, arguably the novel’s greatest strength. Hoffner’s story could only have taken place in Spain and Germany in the 1930s.

Tom Glenn’s stories have appeared in The MacGriffin, Potpourri, The Baltimore Review and the Antietam Review, among other places. They have received many awards, including the Hackney Literary Award.

Author photo credit: Joyce Ravid.

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