Waiting for the Bullet: Diary of a Dead Man on Leave

David Downing takes the title of his latest spy novel, Diary of a Dead Man on Leave from a Comintern expression roughly equivalent to the American saying “dead man walking”, which describes a prisoner condemned to death. Spies for the Soviet Union expected to be eliminated eventually, often by their own side.

Josef, the narrator of the diary is a German national, returned from South America to Hamm, Germany to foment revolution there. He has seen the inside of prison in his previous assignment, but in Hitler’s Germany in 1938, prison is the least of his worries. Any Germans with communist ideas have learned to keep their head down or even to espouse the ideals of the fascist German Social Democracy party, which Hitler heads.

It seemed appropriate that my library hold on this ebook should come through in the first week of March 2020, given the news.

In this winter of my 84th year I have been battling chronic pain in the first place and the side effects of the medication that alleviated it in the second. Briefly, the meds worked brilliantly, except they made me seasick. I staggered about, trying not to throw up, but reluctant to quit them because of their good effect.

At the same time, news of the novel corona virus came at me from every direction. I live in Toronto, where SARs made itself at home in 2002-3 and I knew people affected. The good news being touted was that Covid-19 was not as deadly as SARs. The other good news was that it could be mild, didn’t seem to affect children and most of the people who died were elderly.

Just a minute – that’s me.

The average age of those who have died at this date is 80. Those over 80 have over a 20.5% chance of dying from it, according to WHO’s February figures. I tried to put that in perspective. Twenty of one hundred 80-year-olds who caught it died. The other one presumably became a zombie. No, no, stupid, you have to think in terms of 200. Forty one of them died. Okay. Got it.

Well, should I even bother hoarding toilet paper. The average age of those hospitalized was 60. I’d be carted out of here snappish at that rate. No problem. My apartment door is opposite the elevators. No troublesome narrow staircase.

So that’s settled. Someone else can raid my pantry in their desperation to survive the quarantine.

Like Josef, all I can do is wait for the bullet, comforted by the fact that if it’s my bullet, someone else will be spared.

I had a brief flirtation with Communist ideology in my youth, mostly to annoy Joe McCarthy, the U.S. senator who was persecuting liberal Americans. Never mind that I was Canadian. I cheered when Castro ‘liberated’ Cuba, the day that I was married. Got over that pretty fast, certainly by the fall of 1962 when the Soviets seemed bent on blowing up my babies.

Spy-wise, Josef’s return to Germany, is not a success.The first sign is that he decides to keep a diary: spies should never commit anything to paper. He has found a room in a boarding house run by a widow, Anna, who has a 12-year-old son, Walter. Walter is trying to navigate his way through school assignments, which require him to support Nazi ideas and policies and he turns to Josef for help. It is this unexpected human need that prompts Josef to start his journal.

At that time -the summer and fall of 1938 – Hitler is laying the groundwork for the annexation of Sudetenland, the “Germanic” part of Czechoslovakia. It looks as if he will gobble up the whole country. Probably he delays because, despite the armament he has built, his railway infrastructure is not yet up to the job. Josef knows this because he works on scheduling trains. Czechoslovakia will be annexed entirely in March 1939, but it will take the invasion of Poland for the Allies to declare war. The main narrative of the diary ends before that.

There are four boarders in Anna’s house, avid followers of the news. One of them Rushay delightedly recites newspaper accounts of  the latest Nazi  ‘achievements’ at the breakfast table. He is not the only boarder who is in love with Anna, but he is the most persistent.

Reading these scenes is like watching CNN today, leadership indulging in half-truths, self aggrandizement, unapologetic disregard for facts and downright lies.

David Downing lives in England with his American wife. And yes, they do get CNN across the pond. My Belgian brother gets a head start on us because he gets up six hours earlier and sometimes wakes me up with outrages I don’t yet know about. I have explained to him that my medication is supposed to be calming my nerves, which are otherwise set on maximum alert, that I don’t watch the news anymore.

Addicts lie, but you knew that.

Diary of a Dead Man on Leave alludes to the ever worsening persecution of the Jews and concentration camps, but it dramatizes the persecution of Walter’s African-German school friend, Marco, who gets called a Rhineland bastard. He was conceived there at the end of WW I and his father, who loved his mother, was shipped home, not knowing about the conception.

Josef lives in expectation of recall to Moscow and the bullet that will probably await him. He is not sure he will answer the summons when it comes and meanwhile, Anna’s family needs him more and more.

He has always put his ideals before individual needs. The good of the whole and all that. How much of conscience should be sacrificed for pragmatic personal reasons?

Like many others, I would be better off today if I had been more pragmatic and morally flexible, but I chose to defy that logic. The same defiance that brought me here leads me to say the Covid-19 bullet is not for me.

If I am wrong, it doesn’t matter.

Ah Josef, this life is a school after all.