Robert Lautner’s second novel, The Draughtsman [London: Borough Press, 2017] is beautifully written, as exciting as any thriller, profoundly moving and with a significant moral message. It is in contention for my Book of the Year.
Imagine you have been unemployed since you graduated from university as a draughtsman and that, at last, you are offered a job in the local big employer’s drawing office. Your young wife sees you off to work and you find you are being asked to do just what you are trained for. It’s all wonderful except that this is Erfurt in Germany in 1944, the country is at war and your job is working on designs for better crematorium ovens to speed up the disposal of the steadily accumulating corpses in the concentration camps. Would your conscience bother you?
Imagine further that you learn, to your utter surprise, that your new wife has not told you she is really Jewish and that she has been meeting with a group of communist sympathisers who include your best friend from school days. By now, few outside the ranks of the SS and the Fϋhrer himself believe Germany is going to win the war. The Russians are advancing across Poland and the Allies have landed in France. It seems certain that the SS and your employer are going to destroy the physical evidence in the camps and the paper evidence in the files of your employer. Evidence will be lacking. But you have a copy of the latest plans and, if you can get your wife to safety, you could deliver this to the Allies. What will you do; remembering that, whatever you do, you will be risking your life to do anything: even just keeping your head down and obeying orders?
These are the stark choices facing the narrator, Ernst Beck, and he has to endure many physical and mental trials to achieve a resolution. As well as reading the book, however, reading the author’s note at the end of the book is essential. This points up the dilemmas that Beck had to face and challenges us all to answer truthfully what we might have done in similar circumstances.