I do so enjoy stories set during World War II that are not about battles or even soldiers. (One could make the argument, of course, that the people in this tale are soldiers, albeit of a different sort.) The Ventriloquists is a based-on-a-true-story story that will appeal to those of us who believe the pen is mightier than the sword. It’s a story about stories, about writing, about propaganda and other dark arts. E.R. Ramzipoor’s dramatization of an actual event during the Nazi occupation of Belgium brings a potent mixture of inspiration and sorrow, of soaring highs and equally poignant lows. This is a book begging to become a movie. It’s also probably a hundred pages too long.
It’s 1943, and Brussels is Nazi territory for now. Most newspapers have either been shut down or become nothing more than puppet voices for Nazi propaganda. The new Nazi in town captures a select group of resistance fighters and coerces them into preparing the most dastardly, most effective, most convincing propaganda issue of a newspaper ever seen. But this group has a plan to get away with a bait-and-switch. They don’t expect to survive; they don’t even know if what they plan to pull off will have an effect—but they are going to try, damn it!
The Ventriloquists works because none of these characters are heroic, at least not in the melodramatic sense of that word. I’m not going to analyze each player in detail, but whether we’re discussing Marc or Lada or Spiegelman, these characters are people, not heroes. Messy, complicated, conflicted people. Ramzipoor conveys what I can only imagine is the accurate sense of desperation that people in these situations must have felt while occupied during wartime. A strange cognitive dissonance exists, wherein everything is “the new normal” (a phrase I’ve come to loathe during our current pandemic) yet also everything sucks.
I also like how Ramzipoor humanizes our main Nazi antagonist, Wolff, without making him a sympathetic character. This is a tough line to walk. I’m not interested in stories that make me feel sorry for Nazis. Nevertheless, I do think it’s important to explore what motivates an individual within such an incredibly hateful yet efficient organization. Ramzipoor calibrates Wolff’s interactions with Spiegelman and Aubrion in particular to help with this.
I am not as big a fan of the frame story and Helene/Gamin’s arc in general, not because I disliked her, but mainly because it draws out the story without seeming to add much to it. Why do we keep checking in with older!Helene for these little bits of foreshadowing that don’t add much? In general, the way Ramzipoor switches perspectives doesn’t work for me.
The story itself draws out about 14 days into over 500 pages, and there’s probably a case to be made here for some more revision and paring down. However, that’s a stylistic quibble. Ramzipoor creates atmosphere in her descriptions and her characters’ ruminations, and there are times when it works and times when I found myself less interested in returning to the book because I wasn't in the mood to wait another ten pages for something to happen (I exaggerate, I know).
The Ventriloquists is one of those novels where the author’s reverence for the history they’ve studied clearly shines through. I’m glad I read it, because it is engrossing and enthralling in many places. It just doesn’t always keep me on the edge of my seat or quite have a style of storytelling that appeals to me.