I am very excited to bring you an extract from Stephen Deutsch’s new novel, Champion. Thank you to Aimee at Bookollective for my spot on the tour. Yesterday, Linda did a fantastic interview and extract post, Staying in with Stephen Deutsch, and today I am bringing you a further taste of the book. I hope this extract gives you a flavour of this dramatic story! For more on Champion, check out the excellent bloggers and bookstagrammers on the tour, which runs until 27th July!
Dark haired, slight, with deep-set haunted eyes, Herschel Grynszpan is an undocumented Jewish alien living in Paris. He receives a postcard from his parents – recently bundled from their Hanover flat, put on a train and dumped, with 12,000 others on the Polish border. Enraged, Herschel buys a gun and kills a minor German official in the German Embassy. The repercussions trigger Kristalnacht, the nationwide pogrom against the Jews in Germany and Austria, a calamity which some have called the opening act of the Holocaust.
Intertwined is the parallel life of the German boxer, Max Schmeling, who as a result of his victory over the then ‘invincible’ Joe Louis in 1936 became the poster boy of the Nazis. He and his movie-star wife, Anny Ondra, were feted by the regime – tea with Hitler, a passage on the airship Hindenburg – until his brutal two-minute beating in the rematch with Louis less than two years later. His story reaches a climax during Kristalnacht, where the champion performs an act of quiet heroism.
Chapter 16 – Buying a Gun
City noises jarred him awake. His immediate thought was that he should start his morning prayers. He looked for his tallis bag, then remembered that he had left it in his uncle’s flat. A disappointed shrug. God will forgive me after all I’ve been through. He rang for breakfast. After a few minutes, as he washed his face then smoothed his rumpled clothes as best he could, he heard a soft knock. When he opened the door, he found a tray of food at his feet – croissant, jam, butter, and coffee. He was hungry. Though the croissant was stale and tasteless, he ate it all. His familiar heartburn began immediately. And as usual, this gastric rebellion was accompanied by anxious thoughts, the mantra of worries which accompanied him everywhere, sometimes suppressed by diversions, but always lurking.
He removed a postcard from the inside pocket of his jacket and studied it. On the front, a formal monochrome photograph taken a few months earlier, in a busy, shabby photographer’s studio near the Pigalle, much recommended by his friends. Wearing a three-piece suit and tie, he stared straight at the camera, his attitude both serious and haughty, his black hair slicked back, an unlit cigarette resting nonchalantly between two fingers of his left hand, his right arm held behind his back. He thought the result both flattering and lifelike.
He fished the nub of a pencil from his jacket pocket and, sitting on the edge of the bed, wrote on the other side of the card:
My dear family, I couldn’t do otherwise. God must forgive me. My heart bleeds when I think of our tragedy. I have to protest in a way that the whole world will hear, and this I intend to do. I beg your forgiveness.
He signed the card and addressed it to his aunt and uncle then placed it in his wallet.
Leaving the hotel quickly, he strode along the Boulevard de Strasbourg, now filling with pedestrians, lorries and buses.
He arrived at A la Fine Lame, the gun-shop he had discovered on the previous evening. A middle-aged woman was raising the door shutters, the metallic clatter breaking through the noise of the traffic. He followed her into the shop. She studied him warily. He seemed to her a contradiction; well dressed, wearing expensive clothes, poised – yet unkempt, creased, unshaven.
‘Monsieur?’ she enquired, her eyebrows betraying her uneasy curiosity.
He needed some time to formulate what he intended to say into the best French he could manage. He looked around the dark shop, crammed with a large display of handguns in glass display-cases, mostly pistols and revolvers. Rifles and shotguns were mounted on the walls behind the counter. Satisfied with his inner rehearsal, he turned to her.
‘I need to buy a gun. It is because my father often…’
‘If you will excuse me for a moment, Monsieur, I’ll call my husband, Monsieur Carpe, who will be happy to advise you.’
Monsieur Carpe arrived before she could fetch him; stocky, sporting a moustache which Herschel thought was slightly too fulsome for his face. His wife went to open the window shutters. Morning light fell onto the wooden floor. He smiled at the young man.
‘Why do you need a gun?’
‘Well,’ he replied, calming himself so that his voice didn’t quaver, ‘my father is a German merchant who has me to carry large sums of money for him, so I need something to protect myself, things in the world being as they are.’
‘What sort of gun are you looking for?’
‘I was thinking a 45. Like in the movies.’
Carpe scowled. ‘The movies are not real life, Monsieur. A 45 is too heavy. Not for you, my son. What you need is a weapon that a person of your build could handle more easily. Something small, which, by the way, will also not spoil the lines of your jacket.’
He removed a small ‘hammerless’ pistol from the display case, demonstrating its lightness by passing it nimbly between his hands.
‘It holds five rounds, perhaps a bit cumbersome to reload. But I don’t expect someone like you will be in any gun battles. It’s easy to use and accurate at short range, maybe up to twenty metres, depending, of course, on how well you aim.’
Carpe then explained the safety mechanism. He loaded then unloaded the weapon. He demonstrated the ease of the trigger mechanism, then handed the pistol to Herschel, who pointed the gun at the ceiling and pulled the trigger five times. This all fascinated the boy. The gun seemed simple to him, far less complicated than any sewing machine.
‘This particular item costs 210 Fr, plus 35 Fr for a box of 25 bullets.’
He removed the three one-hundred-franc notes from his wallet and pushed them across the counter.
Carpe smiled, pushing the money back. ‘Not quite yet, Monsieur. There is no hurry. It’s early in the day, not so? First I need to take down your name and address and to see your identity papers.’
He handed Carpe his German passport, and stated his address as 8 rue Martel. After completing the registration form, he passed it to Carpe, who stamped it and handed it back, after writing the details into a ledger.
‘You are required by law to take this form to a police station, which as it happens, is just around the next corner. In France, every weapon must be registered.’
‘Yes, I understand.’
He handed the three 100 Fr notes to Carpe, and received his change, which Carpe removed from a drawer in a maple bureau behind him, having opened it with a small black key, one among many dangling at the end of a long silver keychain. Carpe wrapped the gun and ammunition in brown paper sheets and secured the packages with string. The boy put the packages into his overcoat pocket and walked to the door, nodding in the direction of Mme Carpe, who was busy dusting display cases.
‘You turn left at the next corner. You’ll see the police station ahead of you,’ Carpe reminded his agitated young customer.
He left the shop, closing the door quietly. He turned left and walked purposefully down the busy street in the direction of the police station. After a few steps, he abruptly changed his course, almost colliding with a surprised pedestrian. He hurried towards Tout va Bien. Entering the café quickly, he mutely acknowledged the patron, who was fiddling with an ancient coffee machine. Relieved that none of his friends were there, he walked to the washroom and was instantly assaulted by the acrid smell of recently applied disinfectant. He breathed deeply, entered a cubicle and unpacked the revolver and ammunition. He loaded the handgun – this isn’t as complicated as Mr. Carpe said – and put it into the left pocket of his suit jacket, smoothing the bulge as best he could. He placed the box of ammunition into his overcoat pocket. As he reached the Metro station, Strasbourg Saint-Denis, he threw the wrapping paper into a bin.
‘A return ticket, please,’ he asked at the counter.
‘It’s too early. No return tickets until after 9.30,’ he was informed by an already bored cashier.
‘A single then.’
He rode line 8 to the Madeleine, then changed to line 12 to Solférino.
He arrived at the German Embassy at 9.35. He was unsure about what to do next, but then the gun in his pocket reminded him of his mission.
About the Author
Stephen Deutsch was born in New York and moved to the UK in 1970, becoming a naturalised citizen in 1978. He was trained as a pianist and composer, spending the first part of his career composing music for concert hall, theatre, television and film.
He has been a lecturer in film sound and music, and has edited a journal on that subject, The Soundtrack, and later The New Soundtrack. He is the co-author of a coming book Listening to the Film: A Practical Philosophy of Film Sound. He has written plays for television, broadcast on the BBC. For 25 years he composed the music for all stage, film and TV works of the playwright Peter Barnes.
Champion is out now, published by Unicorn, and is available to purchase here.