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Originally published Thursday, February 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Germania:" a novel of WWII-era razzle-dazzle

Brendan McNally's novel "Germania" is the story of four Jewish brothers, razzle-dazzle entertainers, spies and assassins in the Germany of World War II.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Germania"

by Brendan McNally

Simon and Schuster, 371 pp., $26

Brendan McNally's debut novel, "Germania," is an odd duck indeed. At its center is a family of four fictional Jewish brothers, enormously popular entertainers in prewar Germany, known as The Flying Magical Loerber Brothers. Manni, Franzi, Ziggy and Sebastian are the German Idols of their day, wowing audiences with conjuring, acrobatics, juggling, razzle-dazzle. We meet them in their heyday in a brief prologue set in 1933.

The rest of the novel is set in 1945, during the death throes of the Third Reich — the days when Hitler was going quietly insane in his bunker as the Allies' noose tightened. The brothers have separated. Franzi is a gay spy who ends up as SS head Heinrich Himmler's mystical adviser and masseur; Ziggy, despite his Jewishness, is a U-boat captain; Manni is an assassin and undercover agent. Sebastian is presumed dead.

As the endgame takes shape, there is a mad scramble inside the Nazi regime, first to fill the power vacuum and then to escape. The brothers' splintered experiences propel the novel to its foregone conclusion, with much of the story told from the viewpoint of either Ziggy or Franzi, whose weird position as Himmler's assistant/prisoner becomes the crux of the action. Despite its subject matter, the story is curiously lighthearted and effervescent, a bustling caper.

On one level, "Germania" is a fascinating parade of minutiae. McNally, formerly a military journalist, layers in a trove of surprising characters and details. Behind the fictional protagonists are historical figures, doing the bizarre things that they really did. Himmler's quasi-mystical buffoonery is much stranger than fiction.

The title itself refers to the grand and ultimately imaginary city planned endlessly by Hitler and Albert Speer, the "able technocrat" who was the Fuhrer's architect. "The two of them had spent years dreaming it up; a city greater than Rome, a light among nations, a capital fit to rule the world for a thousand years: Germania!"

There are holes and lapses in the plot — the demise of Sebastian is never credibly explained — and there are lulls during which reality intrudes jarringly. But for the most part, McNally manages to keep his peculiar adventure aloft. The story carries you, not always without qualms, not always elegantly, but with enough panache and energy that you don't mind being marched along.

It works, in the end, in the same way as the brothers' cabaret act, by not giving the audience too much time to think about things. Or, as Franzi explains to his Nazi boss: "Herr General, do you want to know what magic is? Ninety percent of it is distraction. The rest is manipulation."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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