Book review: Seelendbinder, James McNeish

By David Hill

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NZ writer James McNeish.
NZ writer James McNeish.

What a phenomenon James McNeish is. Literary fashions, figures and feuds parade past and all the while McNeish is working steadily and skilfully away. He's the author of 25-plus books from 50-plus years of work. That's, well, phenomenal.

Much of his work is rooted in a strong sense of social justice. Those who stand against repression have always drawn his sympathy. This creative biography is another example.

Werner Seelenbinder was an outstanding German wrestler of the 1930s. His leftist sympathies, and breath-taking refusal to give the Nazi salute after winning a national title, saw him banned and ostracised. He took part in the Berlin Olympics, "the biggest fraud in the history of organised sport", only because it gave him a chance to denounce Hitler.

He became a courier for the Communist Resistance. Inevitably, he was imprisoned. For nearly three years, he was shunted from prison to prison, starved, tortured and reviled. In October 1944, he was convicted of "high treason" and beheaded.

The most poignant aspect of this story is that he's still so unknown. After the war, he was lauded by East Germany and therefore ignored by the West. That bizarre rewriting of history continues; his name dropped from parks and sportsgrounds.

The outsider mystique drew McNeish in, as with his memorable biography of Jack Lovelock. The result is a narrative stepping confidently between past and present.
Encounters and dialogue are vigorously re-created.

We follow Seelenbinder from his birth in the last decade of European peace, his restless adolescence in World War I and its anarchic aftermath, his involvement with socialist ideas. He meets Charlotte and life is idyllic. (She would die almost as shockingly.)

Women queue up, including one who shouts "Heil Hitler!" at a very private moment. He endures the Depression while rage begins to swell in him; goes to Russia twice. Successful, strong, sensual: he could have been a darling of the Third Reich. Instead, he chooses integrity and idealism. Also poignantly, he needn't have died. He could have escaped, but stayed and perished.

As you'd expect, the writing is close, crafted and intimate. Characters, both historical and contemporary, crackle with authenticity. So what has this figure from seven decades and several continents away got to do with us?

Nothing - and everything. The courage to stand against national sentiment, to endure obloquy and orchestrated perversion will always resonate.

Werner Seelenbinder is a revelation. So is McNeish's presentation of him. Keep going, Sir Jim.

Seelendbinder
By James McNeish
($35, Steele Roberts)

- Canvas

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