During the same week that I was reading Adam Thorpe's accomplished new novel, The Rules of Perspective, an arbitration panel ruled that the Austrian government must return five paintings, valued at $150 million, to the heirs of the Jewish owner from whom the Nazis seized them in the 1938. The serendipitous timing of this morally important legal decision underscores one of the central conceits of Thorpe's book that while the beauty embodied in art may seem at odds with the horrors of war, great art itself has always been one of the central spoils of conquest. The events that unfold in The Rules of Perspective cover just one day in April 1945, but the story reaches back centuries and forward into our own time. As the American Army advances eastward, troops bombard the provincial German town of Lohenfelde, home to the small Kaiser Wilhelm Museum. Hunkered down in the vaults beneath the museum are its acting director Heinrich Hoffer and the only other three members of the staff who have survived the attrition of war. Herr Hoffer is a decent, if somewhat weak-willed man, who has swallowed his disdain for the Nazis in order to survive. As he awaits his fate in the subterranean darkness, he gets lost in thought about the nature of art, and revisits all that has changed during the 12-year Reich. He finds a degree of consolation in his own act of protest, having secreted away some of the museum's finer holdings to keep them out of the clutches of the ignorant Nazis.
After Lohenfelde has been all but decimated, American soldiers arrive to pick through the rubble and the dead, looking for liquor and compliant girls. One corporal, Neal Parry, sends his men off for their diversions while he himself wanders through the ruins of the museum. In civilian life, Parry was an artist, plying his talents in advertising, but harboring greater ambitions. More than the average soldier, he appreciates museums and what they represent, but thanks to the incendiary bombing, there is virtually nothing left of this collection. When he explores the vaults, he finds the bodies of the four who sought refuge there, and he also finds one surviving painting, a serene 18th-century landscape attributed to the German painter Johann Christian Vollerdt.
Overcome by the beauty of the painting, particularly in contrast to the unabated ugliness that surrounds him, Parry abandons his ethics and takes the canvas. Whether actually motivated by greed or altruism, he tells himself he is rescuing a masterpiece. He will never know as the reader will that the painting is of no great value, but it is a talisman of survival, of the continuity of art and of the possibility of redemption. We learn the truth about the painting, and about a true masterpiece hidden in the museum, from Hoffer's narrative, which is interwoven with Parry's as the story shifts back and forth between the hours before the bombing and after. Slated never to meet, Hoffer and Parry are men of a shared aesthetic, blessed or cursed with an artistic temperament that perhaps exceeds their talents. By using a clever narrative technique that allows readers inside the heads of both men, Thorpe is able to draw subtle parallels that remind us of the commonality that exists even between enemies at wartime. These are not new ideas, but by centering his novel on works of art, with all the secrets they can possess, Thorpe brings a fresh, well, perspective to his moving exploration of beauty and war.
Though nominally a British author, Thorpe was born in Paris, grew up in India and Cameroon, and now lives in France. This peripatetic life seems to have given him a rich sensibility that transcends national boundaries. He provides convincing portraits of both the German and the American, and beautifully captures a sense of place and time (although he does err when he has Parry refer to the New Mexico town of Truth or Consequences, which didn't adopt that name until 1950). Thorpe, the author of radio plays, volumes of poetry, and five previous novels, is not well known to American readers. Let's hope The Rules of Perspective changes that, for it is a beautifully wrought, profoundly meditative and highly readable work. Robert Weibezahl is the author of the novel The Wicked and the Dead.