Night falls on the city

8 August 2021

I don’t live in a city and the nearest city to where I live (Hamilton) is a small one (with a population of just over 150,000). Our rented farm house lies close to the road, just around a 65km/hour bend. At 1.30am a ute careered around the bend, lost control and hit the power pole across the road with such force that the pole collapsed and the electric cables were almost touching the road. I was woken by the thud of the collision but by the time we had struggled out of bed and put some warm clothes on, the ute driver had extricated his vehicle and driven off. What was he thinking, leaving live wires across the road where any innocent driver coming around the blind bend could be involved in a potentially fatal collision with those cables? We positioned our cars on either side of the crash site with their hazard warning lights blinking to warn vehicles coming from both directions. Jim went out with a cap lamp and torch and waved down every approaching car – there were at least five between 1.30 and 3.30am. None was travelling at the speed limit and were certainly not intending to slow to 65km/hour to take the bend. Most of the drivers Jim spoke to had been drinking and were probably using this country road as a way of avoiding any patrolling police vehicle. We called the lines company who cut the power to our street and sent out technicians in various grunty vehicles with flashing lights as well as a traffic control van, which immediately set up road cones to close off the road.

By then it was 4am and I was wide awake, my shoulders tense and my neck rigid. Without a bedside light, I decided to read for a while by the light of a torch till I was relaxed enough to attempt to sleep. However, my book was Night Falls on the City (by Sarah Gainham, first published in 1967 and then re-published in 2012 after many years out of print) and far from soporific. It is the story of an actress and her Jewish politician husband in 1940s Vienna. I was getting towards the end of this 630-page novel where the author evocatively describes the horror of being trapped in a city during bombing raids. Such a predicament is far from anything I’ve experienced but having just seen live electrical cables dancing across the road towards our house, I could relate to the surreal feelings of the characters watching their city burn around them.

What struck me more though was the irresponsibility of people who create mayhem and then escape, leaving others to suffer the consequences of their actions. Like the ute driver who fled the scene without a thought for other drivers using the same road. Like the German commanders who gave orders for battalions to defend Vienna against the onslaught of Russian forces and then melted away. Hitler himself was not even in Berlin, which was soon to suffer the same fate at Vienna, and as everyone knows, he killed himself rather than face up to the consequences of his defeat and the chaos he had created.

When we woke up much later in the morning, the technicians were still there, having worked through the early hours in the cold to remove the damaged power pole and insert a new one. Two technicians were up in the cherry-picker completing the rewiring. The traffic control vehicle was still patrolling and patiently guiding cars through the restricted road. One can only imagine the cost of the whole operation, called ‘car v pole’ by the lines company and which they say happens almost every night somewhere in the Waikato. But the ute driver who was responsible for all this was miles away and probably thinking how smart he was to get away. What is more, we were still without electricity and were longing for a hot drink on a cold winter’s morning!

I finished the book today and highly recommend it. It is a well-written and thought-provoking account of what it was like to live and work in Vienna under Nazi rule. The author fleshes out the characters so that the reader is aware of their inner thoughts and motivations.

One of the themes of the novel is people’s penchant for gossip and hearsay and it highlights human ability to latch onto questionable information in order to make sense of a bewildering situation. Viennese bureaucrats who had allowed themselves to be subsumed by the Nazi regime after 1938 were among those who believed in the German wunderwaffe which would be deployed on the Russian front and prevent the invasion of Austria. They comforted themselves with this even as the Russian guns could be heard on the outskirts of the city. This points to the power of propaganda long before the age of television, the Internet and social media.

The other aspect of human frailty skilfully explored in this novel, is people’s ability to expediently change allegiances, like those who quickly ingratiated themselves with the Nazi occupiers, even if it meant turning on their neighbours and informing on them to the Gestapo, only to do an about-face after Germany was defeated in 1945. It poses a conundrum for the reader – how would I react in a similar situation?

As in any story in which the reader identifies and empathises with the characters, one hopes that they will weather the storm and survive to enjoy the peace. But no-one who lived in Europe during the years 1938 to 1945 escaped unscathed and so it is for this novel’s protagonists.