A Ladder to the SkyJohn Boyne / History & Fiction
About the Book
If you look hard enough, you can find stories pretty much anywhere. They don’t even have to be your own. Or so would-be writer Maurice Swift decides very early on in his career.
A chance encounter in a Berlin hotel with celebrated novelist Erich Ackerman gives him an opportunity to ingratiate himself with someone more powerful than him. For Erich is lonely, and he has a story to tell. Whether or not he should is another matter.
Once Maurice has made his name, he sets off in pursuit of other people’s stories. He doesn’t care where he finds them – or to whom they belong – as long as they help him rise to the top. Stories will make him famous, but they will also make him beg, borrow and steal. They may even make him do worse.
A dark and twisted psychological drama, A Ladder to the Sky shows how easy it is to achieve the world if you are prepared to sacrifice your soul.
About the Book
Part I: Before the Wall Came Down
1. West Berlin
6. New York
8. West Berlin
The Swallow’s Nest
Part II: The Tribesman
The Threatened Animal
Part III: Other People’s Stories
1. The Crown, Brewer Street
2. The Queen’s Head, Denman Street
3. The Coach and Horses, Greek Street
4. The Lamb and Flag, Rose Street
5. The Dog and Duck, Bateman Street
6. The Cross Keys, Covent Garden
7. HM Prison Belmarsh
About the Author
Also by John Boyne
to the Sky
For Stephen Walsh
BEFORE THE WALL CAME DOWN
‘All things which take place in the sexual sphere are not the private affair of the individual, but signify the life and death of the nation.’
– Heinrich Himmler
1. West Berlin
From the moment I accepted the invitation, I was nervous about returning to Germany. It had been so many years since I’d last been there, after all, that it was difficult to know what memories might be stirred up by my return.
It was the spring of 1988, the year the word ‘perestroika’ entered the language, and I was seated in the bar of the Savoy Hotel on Fasanenstraße, contemplating my sixty-sixth birthday, which was only a few weeks away. On the table before me, a bottle of Riesling had been decanted into a coupe glass that, a note in the menu revealed, had been modelled on the left breast of Marie-Antoinette. It was very good, one of the costlier wines on the hotel’s expansive list, but I felt no guilt in ordering it for my publisher had assured me that they were content to cover all my expenses. This level of generosity was something new to me. My writing career, which had begun more than thirty-five years earlier and produced six short novels and an ill-advised collection of poetry, had never been successful. None of my books had attracted many readers, despite generally positive reviews, nor had they garnered much international attention. However, to my great surprise, I had won an important literary award the previous autumn for my sixth novel, Dread. In the wake of The Prize, the book sold rather well and was translated into numerous languages. The disinterest that had generally greeted my work was soon replaced by admiration and critical study, while the literary pages argued over who could claim credit for my renaissance. Suddenly I found myself invited to literary festivals and being asked to undertake book tours in foreign countries. Berlin was the location for one such event, a monthly reading series at the Literaturhaus, and although I had been born there, it did not feel like home.
I grew up close to the Tiergarten, where I played in the shadow of statues of Prussian aristocrats. As a small child, I was a regular visitor to the zoo and fantasized about being a keeper there some day. At the age of sixteen, I stood with some friends from the Hitlerjugend, each of us wearing our swastika armbands, and we cheered as Begas’s Memorial to Bismarck arrived in the heart of the park from outside the Reichstag as part of Hitler’s plans for a Welthaupstadt Germania. A year later, I stood alone on Unter den Linden as thousands of Wehrmacht soldiers paraded before us following the successful annexation of Poland. Ten months after that I found myself in the third row of a rally at the Lustgarten, surrounded by soldiers my own age, saluting and swearing our fealty to the Führer, who roared at us from a platform erected in front of the Dom of a Thousand-year Reich.
Finally leaving the Fatherland in 1946, I was accepted as an undergraduate student at the University of Cambridge, where I read English Literature, before spending several uneasy years as a teacher at a local grammar school, my accent the source of much derision by boys whose families had been traumatized and depleted by four decades of armed conflicts and unstable reconciliations between our two countries. Upon completion of my doctorate, however, I won a place on the faculty of King’s College, where I was treated as something of a curiosity, a fellow who had been dragged from the ranks of a murderous Teutonic generation and adopted by a noble British institution that, in victory, was prepared to be magnanimous. Within a decade I was rewarded with a professorship and the security and respectability attached to that title made me feel safe for the first time since childhood, assured of a home and a position for the remainder of my days.
When being introduced to new people, however, the parents of my students, say, or some visiting benefactor, it was often remarked that I was ‘also a novelist’, the addendum both discomfiting and embarrassing to me. Of course, I hoped that I had some modicum of talent and longed for a wider readership but my standard reply to the inevitable question Would I know any of your books? was Probably not. Typically, new acquaintances might ask me to name some of my novels and I would do so in anticipation of humiliation, observing the blank expressions on their faces as I listed them in chronological order.
That night, the night of which I speak, I had endured a difficult evening at the Literaturhaus, where I had taken part in a public interview with a journalist from Die Zeit. Uncomfortable with speaking German, a language I had all but abandoned upon my arrival in England more than forty years earlier, an actor had been hired to read a chapter of my novel aloud to the audience and, when I told him the particular section that I’d chosen, he shook his head and demanded to be allowed to read from the penultimate chapter instead. Of course, I argued with him, for the piece he suggested contained revelations that were intended to come as a surprise to the reader. No, I insisted, growing irritated by the arrogance of this disenfranchised Hamlet, who, after all, had been hired simply to stand up, read aloud and then depart by the back door. No, I told him, raising my voice. Not that one. This one.
The actor took great offence. It seemed that he had a process when reading to an audience and it was as rigorous as his preparations might be for an evening on the stage of the Schaubühne. I thought he was being precious and said so and there were raised voices, which upset me. Finally, he acquiesced, but without grace, and I retained enough German to know that his reading was half-hearted, lacking the theatricality required to engage an audience. As I walked the short distance back to the hotel afterwards, I felt disillusioned with the whole business and longed for home.
I had noticed the boy earlier, a young man of about twenty-two carrying drinks to the tables, for he was very beautiful and it seemed that he had been glancing in my direction as I drank my wine. A startling idea formed in my mind that he was drawn to me physically, even though I knew that such a notion was absurd. I was old, after all, and had never been particularly attractive, not even at his age, when most people have the magnetism of youth to compensate for any physical inadequacies. Since the success of Dread and my subsequent elevation to the ranks of literary celebrity, newspaper portraits had invariably described my face as ‘lived in’ or as ‘one that has seen its share of troubles’, although thankfully they did not know just how deep those troubles ran. I felt no sting from such remarks, however, for I had no personal vanity and had long ago given up on the idea of romance. The yearnings that had threatened to annihilate me throughout my youth had diminished over the years, my virginity never conquered, and the relief that accompanied lust’s exile was akin to how one might feel having been unshackled from a wild horse let loose on prairie ground. This proved a great benefit to me, for, confronted by an endless stream of handsome youths year after year in the lecture halls of King’s College, some of whom flirted shamelessly with me in the hope of receiving better grades, I found myself indifferent to their charms, eschewing vulgar fantasies or embarrassing attachments for a sort of distant avuncularism. I played no favourites, adopted no protégés, and gave no one cause to suspect impure motives within my pedagogical activities. And so it came as something of a surprise to find myself staring at the young waiter and feeling such intense desire for him.
Pouring another glass of wine, I reached for the bag that I’d left next to my chair, a leather satchel that contained my diary and two books, an English-language edition of Dread and an advance copy of a novel by an old friend that was due to be published a few months later. I picked up where I had left off, perhaps a third of the way through the book, but found myself unable to concentrate. This was not a problem that I normally faced and I looked up from the pages to ask myself why. The bar was not particularly noisy. There was really no reason that I could think of to explain my lack of focus. And then, as the young waiter passed me, the sweet and intoxicating scent of boyish perspiration infusing the air, I realized that he was the cause of my distraction. He had stolen into my consciousness, nefarious fellow, and was refusing to surrender his place. I set the novel to one side and watched as he cleared a nearby table before wiping it down with a damp towel, replacing the coasters and relighting the votive candle.
He wore the standard Savoy uniform of dark trousers, white shirt and an elegant maroon waistcoat emblazoned with the hotel’s insignia. He was of average height and regular build, and his skin was smooth, as if it rarely knew the pull of a razor. He had full red lips, strong eyebrows and a mop of unruly dark hair that looked as if it would fight with all the resolve of three hundred Spartans at the Pass of Thermopylae against any comb that attempted to tame it. He recalled to me Caravaggio’s portrait of the young Minniti, a painting I had always admired. Above all else, however, there was that unmistakable spark of youth about him, a powerful blend of vitality and impulsive sexuality, and I wondered how he spent his time when he was not on duty at the Savoy. I believed him to be good and decent and kind. And all this despite the fact that we had not, as yet, exchanged a single word.
I tried to return to my book but it was lost to me now and so I reached for my diary to remind myself of what the following months held in store. There was a publicity trip to Copenhagen and another to Rome. A festival in Madrid and a series of interviews in Paris. An invitation to New York and a request for me to take part in a series of curated readings in Amsterdam. Between each visit, of course, I would return to Cambridge, where I had been granted a year’s leave of absence to pursue my unexpected promotional opportunities.
A bored voice interrupted my fantasies, an insolent noise enquiring whether there was anything else that I needed, and I looked up irritably as the young man’s older colleague, overweight and with dark bags beneath his eyes, stood before me. I glanced at the Riesling, which was almost empty – had I really drunk an entire bottle of wine alone? – and shook my head, certain that it was time for bed.
‘But tell me,’ I said, hoping that my eagerness would not be a cause for humiliation. ‘The boy who was serving earlier. Is he still here? I wanted to thank him.’
‘His shift ended ten minutes ago,’ he replied. ‘I expect he’s gone home by now.’
I tried not to let my disappointment show. It had been so long since I’d felt such a powerful and unexpected attraction to anyone that I didn’t know how to act when thwarted. I was uncertain what I wanted from him but then what does one want from the Mona Lisa or the statue of David other than to sit silently in their presence and appreciate their enigmatic beauty? I was due to return home the following afternoon so could not even plan a surreptitious visit to the bar the following night. It was over; I would not see him again.
Something like a sigh escaped me and I might have laughed at my own foolishness but there was no laughter inside me now, just longing and regret. The solitude I’d endured throughout my life had stopped being painful many years before but now, without warning, it had reared its head again and old, forgotten heartaches sought my attention. My thoughts turned to Oskar Gött and the single year of our acquaintance. If I closed my eyes I could see his face before me still, his complicit smile, his deep blue eyes, and the arch of his back as he lay asleep in the guesthouse in Potsdam on the weekend of our bicycling holiday. If I concentrated I could recall the anxiety I’d felt that he should wake and discover my indecency.
And then, to my surprise, I was interrupted once again. I looked up and there was the young waiter, now changed into a pair of dark jeans, a casual shirt with two buttons undone at the neck and a leather jacket with a fur trim around the collar. He carried a woollen hat in his hands.
‘I’m sorry to disturb you,’ he said, and I knew immediately that he was not German as I’d assumed but English, his voice betraying echoes of Yorkshire or the Lake District. ‘It’s Mr Erich Ackermann, isn’t it?’
‘That’s right,’ I said, surprised that he should know my name.
‘May I shake your hand?’
He reached out. The skin on his palm looked soft and I noticed how neatly trimmed were his nails. A fastidious creature, I thought. He wore a plain silver band on the middle finger of his right hand.
‘Certainly,’ I said, a little bewildered by this turn of events. ‘We don’t know each other, though, do we?’
‘No, but I’m a great admirer,’ he said. ‘I’ve read all your books. I read them before Dread came out too so I’m not just jumping on the bandwagon.’
‘That’s very kind of you,’ I said, trying to conceal my delight. ‘Very few people have.’
‘Very few people are interested in art,’ he replied.
‘That’s true,’ I agreed. ‘But the lack of an audience should never be a deterrent to the artist.’
‘I’ve even read your book of poems,’ he added, and I grimaced.
‘They were ill advised,’ I said.
‘I disagree,’ he said, quoting a line from one that made me hold my hands in the air, pleading with him to stop. He beamed then, and laughed, displaying wonderfully white teeth. As he did so, a slight crinkle appeared beneath his eyes. He was so very beautiful.
‘And your name?’ I asked, pleased to have an opportunity to stare at him.
‘Maurice,’ he replied. ‘Maurice Swift.’
‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, Maurice,’ I replied. ‘It’s nice to know that there are still some young people who are interested in literature.’
‘I wanted to study it at university,’ he said. ‘But my parents couldn’t afford to send me. That’s why I came to Berlin. To get away from them and earn my own money.’
He spoke with a certain bitterness in his tone but stopped himself before he could say anything more. I was surprised by how dramatic he had become, and how quickly.
‘I wonder whether you might let me buy you a drink,’ he continued. ‘I’d love to ask you some questions about your work.’
‘I’d be delighted,’ I said, thrilled by the opportunity to spend some time with him. ‘Please, Maurice, take a seat. But I’ll have to insist that they’re charged to my room. I couldn’t possibly allow you to pay.’
He looked around and shook his head. ‘I’m not allowed to drink here,’ he said. ‘Employees aren’t permitted to socialize on the premises. If they catch me, I’ll get fired. I shouldn’t even be talking to you, in fact.’
‘Ah,’ I said, putting my glass down and checking my watch. It was only ten o’clock; there was plenty of time until the bars closed. ‘Well, perhaps we could go somewhere else, then? I’d hate to get you into trouble.’
‘I would love that,’ he said. ‘I slipped into your interview earlier for about twenty minutes when I was on my break. I was hoping to hear you talk but an actor was reading from Dread and not doing a very good job of it, I thought.’
‘He was annoyed that I’d chosen a section for him to read that he didn’t like.’
‘But it’s your novel,’ said Maurice, frowning. ‘What business was it of his?’
‘That’s what I thought,’ I replied. ‘But he had different ideas.’
‘Well, by the time I had to come back here he was still reading so I didn’t get to hear you answer any questions and there were so many that I would have liked to ask. You did have something of a scowl on your face all the way through, Mr Ackermann.’
I laughed. ‘Let’s just say it was not an entirely pleasant evening,’ I said. ‘Although it has brightened up considerably now. And please, call me Erich.’