In 1965, an English/American film called The Heroes of Telemark was released. It starred Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris as Norwegian saboteurs attacking the German “heavy water” (deuterium oxide) production facility at Rjukan in Telemark during World War II. Heavy water was a necessary buffering agent in the German program to split the atom, presumably to produce an atomic bomb.
The film took a highly cinematic approach to the story, compressing all the action into a couple weeks and replacing the actual participants with fictionalized and combined characters. It found a mixed response in Norway, where people who’d been through the war complained that it took Kirk Douglas two weeks to do by himself what it took a whole team two years to accomplish in real life.
I kept thinking of that film as I read The Saboteur, Andrew Gross’s similarly (though not so thoroughly) fictionalized account of the same clandestine operations.
Kurt Nordstrum is a Norwegian engineer who leaves his career to join the Resistance – with tragic consequences in his personal life. When an engineer at the Norsk Hydro facility in Rjukan tells him and a comrade that they need to get some microfilm to the English immediately, they hijack a coastal steamer and – just barely – manage to escape to Scotland. Then he and his friend join Company Linge, the Norwegian commando unit, and are eventually airdropped back in Norway. Their mission, from which they do not expect to return alive, is to destroy the Heavy Water production facility. Kurt’s father used to tell him, “A true man goes on until he can go no further… and then he goes twice as far.” And that’s precisely what he and his team will be called on to do before it’s over.
Honestly, I found this a hard book to read, but I’m not sure it’s the book’s fault. I knew this story pretty well already, and so was preparing myself emotionally for the unpleasant parts. Author Gross anticipates those expectations to an extent by making small changes in the story. Kurt Nordstrum (who is essentially standing in for real saboteur Knut Haukelid but has a very different back story), is enabled by his imaginary status to do stuff, and get into dilemmas, that Haukelid never did. I found some of those stuff and dilemmas somewhat implausible, but I can’t deny I was moved by the entirely imaginary heroics at the end.
I was bothered all through by the fictional changes, especially the handling of the characters. Several of the saboteurs here are real people, others are fictional (including an entirely imaginary Norwegian-American). I understand the narrative freedom that gave the author (as mentioned above), but it kind of nagged at me.
I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much about the spelling of Norwegian names and places. It’s pretty hit and miss, but I probably should be thankful for the effort.
What it comes down to, I guess, is that I can recommend The Saboteur to those who aren’t already familiar with the Heavy Water mission. But after you read it, you’ll want to read Neal Bascomb’s The Winter Fortress or something like that to get the actual facts.