Rosa by Jonathan Rabb

With recent books like The News From Paraguay or even The Plot Against America interweaving fact with fiction there have been some interesting discussions around the net about the place and use of history (or “what if” history) in literature(see here for an example). What is the purpose, when does it work, when does it distract, etc. As a former grad student in history and a reader of fiction I find the discussion particularly interesting even if I don’t have much to add.

I bring this up because I have just finished another historical fiction based novel, Rosa by Jonathan Rabb. The Rosa of the title is Rosa Luxemburg the famous socialist revolutionary. But what is interesting is that Rosa is not the lead character, in fact her death sets in motion the central intrigue of the book. Instead the central character is Chief Inspector Nikolai Hoffner. Hoffner is investigating a grizzly series of murders when Rosa’s body turns up matching the M.O. of the serial killer. Suddenly, the case has “political” overtones and Hoffner life gets a great deal more complicated.

Rosa takes place during that tension filled time just after World War I when chaos and violence ruled Germany; when socialists sought revolution only to create a backlash that ultimately led to Hitler. Hoffner, whose roots are awkwardly both Russian and Jewish, is caught up in this tension as he tries to solve his case while fending off the Polpo or political police. His best friend and partner having been killed in the war, he has recently been assigned a new, rather naive, assistant whose girlfriend Hoffner feels inexplicably drawn to. At the same time his devotion to his work, the nature of that work, and his prior philandering have ostracized him from his family. Hoffner is a weary man stuck in a world teetering on the brink of destruction.

What is interesting about Rosa is how it almost defies categorization or mixes genres. Obviously it is a work of historical fiction with central events (the Spartakus revolution) and characters (Rosa, her lover and fellow revolutionary Leo Jogiches, plus a number of others) taken from history. But it is also a sort of police procedural following Hoffner as he tries to unwrap the mystery of his case. Throw in the political angle and the Polpo and it starts to read like a political/espionage thriller; a race to prevent disaster and uncover corruption at the highest levels. Obviously Rabb also uses components of the traditional novel, exploring the interior character of Hoffner. The result is a complex, multi-layered, and suspenseful plot. Rabb is proposing a historical “what if;” seeking to explain what we know by filling in the details via fiction. But that is not really central to the success of the story. Regardless if you believe Rabb has put together a plausible explanation for the delay in finding Rosa’s body, he has created an entertaining and engaging work.

Those not sympathetic to socialists like Rosa Luxemburg might be a little put off by Hoffner’s growing romanticization of Rosa or the way Rabb makes Rosa the un-stated hero of the book, but these larger political/historical angles really don’t interfere. The story is engaging enough and the writing skillful enough, that you are free to suspend any disbelief you might have about the reality of events and give in to the story. Rabb might be a little verbose in parts, I found Hoffner’s psychological musings a bit over the top at times, and some of the events might stretch the bounds of probability, but his descriptions of inter-war Berlin and his capturing of the tensions of the period overcome any turgid prose or hard-to-believe plot twists.

As I have noted before, I generally appreciate a character I can root for or sympathize with but Hoffner is not really that sort given his cheating on his wife and largely ignoring his kids. In this case the setting made a difference. There is something about the inter-war period that made Hoffner’s character work. The despair, the constant tension, the sense of impending doom, all of this helps explain Hoffner’s situation if not his actions. As noted above, the socialist martyr Rosa is the only character who really seems to have a moral compass. What makes Hoffner a compelling character is his drive to finish the case. In a life, and a society, that has fallen apart in so many ways the only thing he has to hang on to is doing his job. The satisfaction from completing a case is the only thing that really gives he pleasure; it is the only thing he feels competent to do.

Call it what you will (historical fiction, police procedural, spy thriller, psychological drama) but in the end Rosa is just a good story with interesting characters and a unique setting. And in the end that is often all that matters.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).