A zeppelin story full of hot air

A popular German author brings the Hindenburg to America, again

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Stories about famous disasters labor under an obvious burden: Everything besides the catastrophe seems extraneous. Yes, Kate and Leonardo, you're lovely, but get out of the way so we can see your boat sink.

As soon as the Hindenburg exploded, people began referring to it as the Titanic of the air. But unlike the doomed ocean liner, the Hindenburg died live - on radio and film - etching and re-etching its tragedy into our cultural consciousness. Anyone who tells the tale now confronts an audience gassed up on anticipation.

Henning Boëtius, the author of more than 20 novels in Germany, places the zeppelin's explosion in the middle of "The Phoenix," capping the tragedy at both ends with a mysterious man's search for its cause. This is the first of his books to arrive in America, and unfortunately, it's a difficult landing.

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There's plenty of promise in this two-part story about a crewman who escapes unharmed and a passenger who assumes a new identity after his face is burned away. Boëtius knows how to create strange locales, from a North Sea island to the lounge of the largest ship ever to fly. His success as a mystery writer shows in the sprinkling of clues as the Hindenburg makes its three-day flight to Lakehurst, N.J. And as the son of a surviving crewmember, he can provide intimate details about this flammable behemoth.

But all these fine qualities aren't enough to keep the novel afloat beneath Boëtius's heavyhanded narrative technique and a plot that smokes ominously but never catches fire. The author can't restrain himself or his characters from lecturing at us in a voice that's pretentious and 100-percent irony-free.

The story opens 10 years after the Hindenburg's disastrous landing in 1937. Journalist Birger Lund has endured countless surgical operations to reconstruct a face. Presumed dead, he's invented a new identity, abandoned his family, and dedicated himself to understanding the ship's explosion. He's the kind of person who's always asking needlessly, "Do you understand what I mean?" At one point he reveals, "Fantasy is real only in fantasy." When his old lover says, "You express yourself with marvelous profundity," I hoped, in vain, that she was kidding. In the next moment, we're told, "Their parting was cinematic." Oh, the humanity!

What's worse, half a dozen times we're made to endure Lund's Law: "The law states, 'The greater the disaster, the simpler its cause.' " I propose a corollary law which states that the more times a theme is repeated in a novel, the less interesting it becomes.

This is a shame because parts of the story are wonderful. When Lund travels to a North Sea island to find a crewman who was at the controls when the Hindenburg exploded, he enters a strange world as isolated from time as he is from humanity. It's the perfect setting for his brooding personality. He's befriended by a hunchback dwarf, an amorous barmaid, and a group of thugs who eventually try to kill him.

The novel's best section moves back to the early life of Edmund Boysen, the crewman Lund is trying to locate. In scenes free of the narrator's explanations or Lund's "marvelous profundity," we see Boysen's odd courtship beneath the lustful eye of his fiancée's mother, his rise up the ranks of the German Zeppelin Transport Co., and his eventual assignment to the doomed ship.

These are the stories the author must have heard many times from his father, and he renders them here well. Boëtius's descriptions capture all the wonder of floating in a symbol of peace through clouds of intrigue with the rich and famous.

We also learn the complex mechanics of flying these machines and the even more complicated politics on the ground. Suspicion of the Nazis' motives denied the Germans access to America's helium gas, forcing them to rely on much more dangerous hydrogen. As Boëtius sees it, the tensions between Hitler and the zeppelin's popular promoter, Dr. Eckener, provided the spark that ignited the Hindenburg, described here with spectacular effect.

What's maddening, though, is the novel's ultimately dishonest plot. At the beginning, Lund tells his lover - looking directly into the camera - "Until I provide myself with a past I can understand, I can't have a future. And I can't stand to think that my life has been shattered by something that was quite obviously more than just some fluke occurrence. I want to get to the bottom of this so-called accident."

But, in fact, we never learn anything about his past, his family, or his reasons for abandoning them. Even "this so-called accident" turns out to be something else entirely. His angst-ridden search leads only to political speculation that addresses none of the novel's dark psychological questions. As the story comes in for a landing - boom! - all Lund's hot air explodes in a final lecture that destroys any hope that this novel will ever fly.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csps.com.

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