Descended from evil


As we meet Max, he is clinging to his mother's womb, trying not to be born until past midnight. Then it will be April 20 and he will share his birthday with the man he calls father - the Führer. His mother has been selected (a word Max does not use lightly) for Himmler's Lebensborn programme, in which women are impregnated by SS officers to produce perfect little Aryans.

Max, (Walker Books, £7.99), by Sarah Cohen-Scali, is dotted with maternal figures, from the warped and sinister to the self-sacrificial.

Cohen-Scali prefaces the book with a wish that readers will love Max -and this super-intelligent baby does grab our sympathy. He is comically proud of his racial credentials and the distinction of having been baptised by Hitler, even if he did pee on the Nazi leader by mistake.

Like all bright babies, he picks up vocabulary rapidly; he understands that "purified" and "relocated" mean killed and that "rabbits" are babies used in experiments. Naïve narrators often come over as deadpan - especially when the text is not being read in its original language - but Max is all energy and indignation and translator Penny Hueston ably conveys this.

Once Max is old enough to speak, his intelligence becomes less convincing - it is easier to believe that a baby can think profound thoughts than to hear a toddler speak them. He also becomes less amusing but by now he has us hooked. (One child-like fixation that he retains, regrettably, is a fascination with his own bodily functions.)

He is comically proud of his racial credentials

He is an entertaining show-off. But not for Max are the trivial accomplishments of animal noises and the ABC. He shows talent as an undercover agent, luring Polish children from their families, to be Germanised in secure institutions. In the process, he meets Lukas, a fine Aryan boy, blond and muscular, uncircumcised.

Except that... Lukas is Jewish. And Max is baffled to meet his first Jew, so utterly unlike the hooked-nosed misers of propaganda. He is continually bursting to denounce Lukas, creating a tension which works itself out in one final, dramatic moment. But they form a brotherly bond and look out for each other during their elite Nazi schooling and beyond. Despite their extreme circumstances (Lukas's aim is to serially kill his classmates, sons of SS officers), their affectionately bullying relationship has a genuine "brothers-at-boarding-school" feel, a moving reminder that they are still children.

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