Review: “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History” Robert M. Edsel. Center Street Publishing, 2010.

The title says it all really. The story told in this book has every element needed for a “ripping yarn”. Nazis, brave Allied heroes, stolen art and British pubs. It’s a story that is relatively unknown and Edsel’s effort to honour the men who worked so hard to preserve heritage in war torn Europe is laudable. I was at times moved to tears or laughter by the story in which the characters are eminently sympathetic and the morals are fairly clear cut – much more so than they likely were in real life. This is an exciting world of espionage and of “goodies” fighting “baddies”. The book moves beyond a two dimensional portrait of the events becoming a fascinating discussion of the issues of protecting heritage in war time; a concern that is still clearly resonant today.

Unfortunately, while the story told is a fascinating and compelling study of extraordinary actions in extraordinary circumstances the major downfall is not the content of the narrative – it is the structure. The short chapters and insertion of personal and official letters (which are interesting primary documents, but often seem to have no connection to the immediate story) make the reading experience entirely disjointed at times. Though the indomitable Stout is clearly the central figure the constant shifts in time, location and character becomes distracting.

Furthermore, Edsel never seems to quite settle on a genre; is this historical fiction, or a dramatized history? He has clearly done his research but the book often contains long passages of speech or internal dialogues. Despite his assertion in the introduction that “in all cases [these are] based on extensive documentation” they rather detract from the credibility of the book as historical fact. Edsel writes well enough to have made this a compelling thriller but the focus on historical documentation never allows for the book to function on that level. Unfortunately, by never settling on one genre or the other, I’m not sure what audience he will best please.

Lastly, there is actually not a lot of discussion in the book of the monuments themselves, or of the factors that went into the determination of what the “Monument Men” ought to protect. Admittedly, the books title clearly indicates that this is the story of individuals, but some discussion of the nature of the objects and places themselves would have been useful to the reader.

As a final note – along with the book Edsel has a visually appealing website concerned with a variety of looting issues related to the period and, apparently, the book is set to be made into a film with an all star cast. I’ll be interested to see how this is handled – I rather fear that it will turn into “Inglorious Bastards… with Art”. This would be a shame, since the real story here is one that deserves a wider audience.

 

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