In September 1940 the Marxist literary critic and essayist Walter Benjamin committed suicide in the Spanish border town of Port Bou.
Having escaped German occupied France into Spain, he faced being deported back over the border to certain death, being a German Jew.
Bruno Arpaia’s new novel, The Angel Of History, centres on Benjamin’s final months in Paris and his flight from the advancing Germans – and on the life of a fictional Spanish revolutionary who discovers him in the middle of the night alone in the mountains.
At first sight there seems to be a total contrast between the man of action who fights fascism and the unworldly, untimely, writer with his exquisite 19th century manners. But both represent forces trying to escape fascism and the dead end of Stalinism.
The novel succeeds in recreating a European world slipping away from Benjamin and his friends. Some have already fled to New York or Palestine.
But the exiled German writer cannot bring himself to leave Paris and his beloved library. Completing his work matters more than his own life. Around him flit a cast of real life characters such as Arthur Koestler and Hannah Arendt.
In his final days in the French capital Benjamin broke off from writing on 19th century Paris and on the poet Charles Baudelaire to write his Theses On The Concept of History. The title of Arpaia’s novel is a reference to a celebrated passage from that essay.
A fine accompaniment to this novel is Fire Alarm by Michael Löwy (Verso, £16.99). It is a brilliant examination of Benjamin’s final essay which argues that “progress” is heading towards the destruction of our planet – and that revolution is a gamble, but one we must take.
The Angel of History, Bruno Arpaia, Canongate, £10.99