Karl Richter was twenty-one in 1945 when the German U-boat he served on as a radio operator received the transmission that the war was over and they should cease fire. The surrender message Karl then sent to an American destroyer on behalf of his commander led to the crew of U-873 being captured as prisoners of war and taken to Portsmouth Naval Prison. Only days later, it was there that Karl was badly beaten and died.
Seventy years later, Yeoman Third Class Benjamin Pierce arrives in Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the boat he serves on docked there to undergo upgrades. While staying in Portsmouth, Ben has to bunk in the dilapidated Building 191, situated right next to the former prison. One night when Ben is unable to sleep, he decides to climb up the side of the vacated prison to explore, finding spiders, mold, footprints — and he hears the sound of crying coming from one of the empty solitary confinement cells. At the thought that there might be a ghost, Ben’s curiosity overcomes his fear and he heads back to the prison — this time in daylight — where he discovers Karl’s apparition.
My Name was Karl is a ghost story, but not in a typical way. There is nothing malevolent about Karl; instead, Daniel Mitton is able to convey Karl’s loneliness, his guilt at ever being part of the Nazi regime, and the unjust way in which he died. Ben assumes this is the reason Karl has not moved on and plans to tell Karl’s story, though this is not an issue that is fully resolved in the novella. However, Mitton creates a strong bond between Karl and Ben and as their friendship develops, we are aware that Karl is changing:
Looking at Karl, Ben realized the bruising and cuts were gone from his face.
“The signs of your beating are gone, ” he said out loud.
“Are they? It must be something to do with you. I don’t feel cold any longer either.”
I would have liked the emotional connection between Karl and Ben to be more tangible, and for me, the lack of this affected how I felt at the end of the novel. Normally, an ending like that in My Name Was Karl would distress me to the point of tears, but Mitton failed to draw that response from me. I think this is because Mitton concentrates on the physical attraction between Ben and Karl and their exploration of intimate acts that they can both enjoy. On the other hand, I enjoyed Mitton’s use of his imagination with these sexual aspects and I really liked the fact that we understand that these are completely new experiences for Karl.
In My Name Was Karl, Mitton contrasts the lives of Ben and Karl in interesting ways. Both man and ghost have been involved with the navy and despite their times in the military being seventy years apart, their sexuality is secret. For Ben, this is more of a choice because of the homophobic attitudes of his crew, for Karl a fearful necessity. The conversations the two have about history do not take up a lot of pages but Mitton has ensured they are detailed enough, even leaving the reader with some thought-provoking questions.
I particularly like the idea that Ben shows Karl photographs and movies on the internet and the impact this has upon the ghost. In my opinion, Mitton has been conscientious in taking a character like Karl from such a well-chronicled point in history, not ignoring the horrific acts which were committed and pointing out positive changes that have taken place in the world since then.
My Name Was Karl is a very readable novella in which the present meets the past, and the fictional meets the real. I may have been slightly disappointed with one area of Mitton’s execution of the story, but I would still recommend My Name Was Karl.