The prologue is set in a park in London, either in February or March, 1948. Two men meet to discuss the future of one. “It had not been the hardest winter….War. Winter. He had thought he might not live through either. He had….This winter would not kill him. The last would. And all the others that had preceded it.” Viktor Rosen had come to tell Andre Skolnik, someone he had known for much of his life, that he had to stop. It is an audacious statement. Andre Skolnik responds, bringing Viktor back to their real world, “You cannot just stop. You cannot simply quit. What was it you think you joined all those years ago?….the Communist Party of the Soviet Union simply does not work that way.”
The first section of the book is termed “Audacity”. It is February, 1934 and in Vienna those who have been paying attention are preparing for the change that is inevitable. Hitler has taken over Germany and it is only a matter of time before he claims Austria, especially Vienna, as part of his Thousand-Year Reich. Some German Jews have come to Vienna thinking there would be safety and for a few years, it seemed this would be so. Viktor Rosen is one of the most famous pianists in Europe. Imre Voytek arranges for Rosen to give his ten-year old daughter, Meret, music lessons. Meret is a prodigy, a cellist whose second instrument is the piano. Viktor is a pianist whose second instrument is the cello. The music lessons will impact their lives.
Three years later, Viktor flees to England before the Germans march into Austria. Meret’s life has centered around her lessons with Viktor but very soon after the Anschluss, she realizes just how prescient Viktor was. The youth orchestra becomes part of the Hitler Youth and Meret willingly goes along with the rules until, one day, a chance encounter with a boy from the orchestra pulls her into the Nazi machine. Meret is transported to Auschwitz where her talent saves her life. She becomes the cellist for the Ladies’ Orchestra of Auschwitz. When the Russians advance on the camp at the end of the war, Meret is protected because even the Russians know who she is.
The second section of the book is “Austerity”. Meret is re-united with Viktor in England after she has spent time in Paris. Her talent and Viktor’s combine to bring them the same adulation they had received in Vienna. But, although the victors in the war, England is a difficult place to live. Everything is still rationed and life is not easy but Meret and Viktor are established as part of that class of people those talents set them apart from, and above, their new countrymen.
It is in England that Freddie and Rod Troy come into the book. Freddie is called to investigate the murder of a painter, Andre Skolnik. There are no clues, no witnesses so Freddie asks his brother, Rod, if anyone in the ex-pat community knows who he is. When Skolnik is identified, the Troy brothers find their lives becoming more complicated.
The lives of Viktor and Meret run on a parallel path with that of Karel Szabo, an Hungarian physicist, who was interred on the Isle of Man with Rod Troy. Szabo is taken to Canada and then to the United States to work on the Manhattan Project. At the end of the war, he, too, comes to London with a head full of secrets that both sides in the new Cold War want desperately.
As with SECOND VIOLIN, A LILY OF THE FIELD has a chronology that makes it easy to follow the many characters as they move from pre-Nazi Vienna to post-war London. Quentin Crisp is a real person who plays a role in the book that is very close to his real life in England after the war.
Meret and Viktor are the principal characters with Inspector Troy as a close third. The title of the book is spoken by Meret, at the end of the book when she says she will be “…a lily of the field, a beautiful but useless adornment….” The term is first introduced on the page before Chapter One: ” I wouild love to be like the lilies of the field. someone who managed to read this age correctly would surely have learned just this: to be like a lily in the field.” ETTY HILLESUM, diary entry September 22, 1943. She died at Auschwitz, November 30, 1943. Meret saves herself by being a beautiful adornment, not a beautiful human being.
The cover of the book is striking. It is primarily a sepia photograph of a street in Vienna in the late 1930′s. The “O” in the title encircles a swastika. Among the people on the street is a young blond girl carrying a cello case. She is wearing a red coat. She is the only bit of color superimposed on the photograph. She is a lily of the field, her cello case a statement about her ability to adorn the world.
She is also a reminder of the child in “Schindler’s List”. Spielberg shot the movie in black and white. The only color is a little girl in a bright red coat, walking alone. Schindler sees her from a distance, the only sign of joy in a world that is black and white. Later, in one of the camps, he sees her again, joy destroyed. The cover of the book is such a visceral reminder of the movie that it seems that a comparison is intended. Beauty and joy are not always cherished.
If anyone has not yet read any of the books in the Inspector Troy series, please start with SECOND VIOLIN, then BLUFFING MR CHURCHILL, BLACK OUT, A LILY OF THE FIELD, OLD FLAMES, FLESH WOUNDS, and, finally, A LITTLE WHITE DEATH. I recently read SECOND VIOLIN so I am going to start re-reading the series with BLUFFING MR CHURCHILL.