The characters in Owen Sheers’ 2007 alternative-history novel Resistance are caught in a world where they know they lack control.
They are the five Welsh farmwomen in the Olchon valley who wake up one morning to find their husbands missing, gone into the hills to fight as guerillas against the occupation troops of a triumphant German military.
They are also the six members of a German patrol who, sent into the valley to locate a rare artifact, find a kind of harmony, tranquility and even normality after the terrors of battle.
It is 1944, and Albrecht Wolfram, the 33-year-old captain leading the patrol, is a veteran who knows how much his life and the lives of his men are at the mercy of “a thousand other vagaries beyond his own decisions.” Such quirks of fate as:
Blocks of wood pushed across a table in Berlin. Arrows drawn on a map pinned to the wall at the new Southern UK Headquarters. The Fuhrer’s toothache. A general’s capricious fit of arrogance. The trembling cross hairs of a sniper’s sights settling over an Adams apple.
Also feeling like pawns are the farmwomen who see the disappearance of their husbands as a kind of betrayal.
“Becoming less German”
No one in the valley is at ease. The women mourn — and are angry about — the absence of their husbands who, if they are still alive, are operating somewhere else, not in this remote valley at the far eastern edge of Wales, just over the ridge from the far western edge of England.
The Germans know that their respite in this valley must only be temporary. Or must it?
Through a fall and winter, the soldiers and the farmwomen reach an accommodation — not a collaboration, exactly, but a truce of sorts during which the men help the abandoned wives with their farm tasks and, in doing so, find salvation in the ordinary.
Slowly, despite the language barriers, he felt the patrol were becoming less German in the women’s eyes and more just men. Men who’d been washed up on their doorsteps, carrying with them their own losses, just as the women did the loss of their husbands.
By its title, Resistance suggests a story about those husbands, fighting from their hiding places in the countryside. In their absence, they do always loom over the story, but this is a book about the women and the Germans resisting the war — resisting what the war had done to them, resisting violence and hate.
It’s a book about confusion. The women ache for their missing spouses — and fume at being left without a word. Albrecht and the other Germans lust for peace, but they know they have been damaged by the war.
[Albrecht] felt lighter than he had ever done, possessed of a quick, fragile potential. The turning within himself he’d first detected on those early walks through the valley was complete. He’d unlocked, and in doing so woken another part of himself too.
Yet, a few moments later, he is brought down to earth:
He was, after all, no more than the sum of his uniform, of this war. He had no power to shape his future. He could not extract himself, escape from what he had done and what he had been part of, through no will of his own, over these past five years.
The reason for his elation and his despair is 27-year-old Sarah Lewis whose husband Tom is one of the men who disappeared into the hills. Like Albrecht, she is torn between her yearning for Tom and her responsiveness to the learning and sensitivity of the German captain.
She was Tom’s country. And she was in need. But he hadn’t woken. Tom hadn’t come to her. He was still out there, dumb and unseen, absorbed into the hills’ unending green. And deeper still now, under the snow too. He was sinking deeper from her every day.
“I see you”
At one point, Albrecht brings a gramophone to Sarah’s farmhouse to play for her a record of a Bach cello suite. The music touches her deeply, so deeply that she lashes out at him, telling him that he is nothing more than a soldier, part of an occupying army.
“So don’t come here and cover yourself with this music. Because I see you,” she said, her words no more than a whisper. “I see you.”
Like most of the characters in Resistance, Sarah “sees” in a faulty way. Throughout the book, characters misunderstand the actions and motivations of themselves and each other. Not through their own fault, but because of the dark curtain of war.
Well, no, it’s not just war. It’s that war makes the confusion of everyday human life — the misunderstandings that we all must live with — much worse. And deadlier.
The reader comes to understand the men of Albrecht’s patrol as human beings, but a resistance fighter — not one of the husbands — watching another group of German soldiers, as they smoke alongside their Jeep, sees them as:
Ghosts, half-men appearing out of the darkness, hovering above invisible legs. Headless men, the buttons and webbing of their chests illuminated beneath faces and helmets eaten by the night.
Another British fighter, again not one of the husbands, escapes from German torture and approaches the farmhouse where Albrecht’s patrol is living. He sees two of the soldiers, dressed in farm clothes, doing chores and expect to find a safe haven:
He felt a wave of tiredness wash over him. These were the people he was fighting for, for whom he’d endured these months of pain. Men of the earth, men who knew their landscape as intimately as they might a lover.
“Reassert the world”
Resistance is a work of alternative history: What if the Germans had beaten back the Normandy invasion and followed that victory with their own invasion of England?
It has all the aspects of such what-if writing: London is bombed to oblivion (sort of like Berlin actually was), Franklin Roosevelt loses the 1944 election, Winston Churchill and his government escape to Canada, and so on.
This, though, is a much more nuanced story than most alternative histories. Owen Sheers is a poet, and what he has done in Resistance, his first novel, is to use the what-if genre to tell a universal tale.
This is a novel about struggle — the struggle to stay alive, the struggle for human understanding, the struggle of community and connection. Nature here is beautiful and threatening.
[Sarah] wanted to turn back the clock to that night before the men left and she wanted Tom back more than ever. To…fill the space creeping up through the whole of her body, leaving her heart suspended in its own beat, her head afloat from her neck. She wanted Tom back to reassert the world, to stroke her head like he did when the bomber crashed up on the bluff. To hold her and tell her, “Shh, back, shh now, it’s all right. It’s goin’ to be fine. Just fine.”
There’s no turning back for Sarah or any of the other people in Resistance. Like us, they can only go forward — through the confusions and misunderstandings of life and into the trackless future.
Patrick T. Reardon