A Terrible, Awful Novel Of Great Importance

By Robert Rosenberg

Published August 06, 2004, issue of August 06, 2004.
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By Harry Mulisch, translated by Paul Vincent

Viking Press, 180 pages, $22.95.


When galleys for the massive Stalin biography by Montefiore first made the rounds, I got hold of a copy for my father, thinking that the subject would interest him as a survivor of Auschwitz and a former Bundist. He’s read many, if not most, of the books about Hitler and the Nazis — it’s the bedrock of his reading. Still, I thought, he might find a break from Hitler a welcoming respite.

Those who are unfamiliar with the world of survivors might find my father’s obsession with Hitler sick, but I’ve always seen it as a sign of health. True, I could be accused of being his enabler, or dealer. There is something to that: Whenever I give him a new Hitler book, he holds it in the palm of his hand, weighing it for its “count,” trembling — practically like an addict. “Ahhh,” he says. “Hitler bastard.” Hearing those words from him is a strange experience. Coming from me, “Hitler” is not a name, but the description of an action, like “barker” or “squealer”; and “bastard,” a vulgarism. But from his mouth, they have a different quality entirely. “Hitler” loses its machine-like edge; “bastard” loses all meaning. Drawing them out in his soft Polish-Yiddish accent, holding and sustaining each syllable, the sounds emerge from a deep place, a private gehenna where my father and Hitler embrace in their death struggle. “Ah… Hit-ler bes-ted.”

I assumed he’d react similarly to the prospect of the Stalin book. So I was surprised when he said: “Stalin doesn’t interest me — he is… ordinary,” and dismissed him with a shrug as if speaking about a local butcher. “But Hitler bastard….” He broke off, as if the rest — “now there is a mystery” — was self-evident.

These thoughts occurred to me while reading Dutch author Harry Mulisch’s “Siegfried,” a meditation on Hitler and evil in the guise of a novel. A major figure in Europe, Mulisch is perhaps best known here for “The Assault,” the movie version of which won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for best foreign film in 1987. Throughout his career, Mulisch has been obsessed with the Nazism, the Holocaust and the paradoxical nature of evil — a fixation exceptionally fitting for a writer whose father was a Nazi collaborator and whose mother was a Jew.

Set in the present, “Siegfried” introduces us to Rudolf Herter, a noted Dutch-Austrian novelist of Faustian ambition whose work has focused on the moral dilemmas presented by the Holocaust. Nearing the end of an illustrious career, Herter has traveled to Austria to accept a lifetime achievement award. There he finds himself haunted by the shadow of Hitler, especially in the city of Vienna, where the streets still seem to bear Hitler’s imprint. Herter can picture him as a young man consumed with anger, hunger, hatred and something that he cannot explain. “Stalin and Mao were also mass murderers,” he thinks, grappling with Hitler’s singularity, “but there had been only one Hitler. Perhaps he was the most enigmatic human being of all time.”

During a television interview, Herter suddenly conceives of a new book about a character who exists, yet is misunderstood by all: Hitler. It is a work that will attempt to penetrate the hurricane’s eye. “Perhaps,” ruminates Herter, “fiction is the net that he can be caught in.”

Soon afterward, an elderly couple, Ulrich and Julia Falk, approaches him. Introducing themselves as former Nazis who were members of Hitler’s personal staff, the Falks have an astonishing tale to tell, one that goes to the very heart of Hitler’s incomprehensibility: Hitler fathered a child with Eva Braun, a boy by the name of Siegfried, and hid the fact from the world, presenting the Falks as the boy’s parents. It is the life and the death of the boy — and Herter’s effort to penetrate the eye of the hurricane that was Hitler — that drives the rest of “Siegfried.”

Let me be frank: “Siegfried” is not a great novel. Any shred of reality, believability or humor is absent. But that is unavoidable given its conceit, for how does one construct a novel around a figure whose principal quality is pure negativity, absence, vacuum? Even the empathy that Herter/Mulisch tries to show his other characters is hollow. And the book’s climax, the death of Siegfried — intentionally echoing the sacrifice of Isaac in the Bible — is false, a faked orgasm.

Yet this terrible, awful novel is greater and more important than so many other novels that, while good, are ultimately trivial. “Siegfried” is a less a novel than an argument, for one. And as a novel of ideas, as a search and as a quest, Mulisch is on to something. That’s not to say he succeeds, but the effort is as maddening, paradoxical and thought provoking as its protagonist.

More importantly, the effort is a heroic one, especially today, when Hitler, his enigma and his mystery — and the nightmarish power of his vision — are things that are growing, rather than shrinking, the further we get from his time. And the issue of who, or what, he was deepens. It sometimes seems as if he was not truly human, but a changeling in the form of a man. It is easier to imagine Hitler as a spider than as a man, a spider turning his followers into an army of spiders. Whether fiction — or biography or film — is the net in which Hitler can be caught or one in which we cannot help but become entangled is a question not settled easily. It is the reason that so much has been written about Hitler. It is also the reason that those most affected by him, and we who “owe” our existence to Hitler, continue to pore over works written about him.

Early in the book, after learning who Hitler is, the 7-year-old son of Herter says: “Hitler is in hell. But because he likes bad things, it’s heaven for him. All Jewish people are in heaven, so that is hell for him. So he really should be in heaven as a punishment.” The passage caused me to stop, just as I was stopped by much in this failed, provocative work. I thought of my father sitting in the kitchen of his small house in Brooklyn, alone with Hitler bastard — the Hitler he says he beat, the Hitler he bested. It is a thought that heartens and sustains him in these waning hours of his life, just as it is the thought that sustains all Holocaust survivors. It is, in the end, his own private gehenna, his hell. It is also in the end perhaps a small corner of heaven.

Robert Rosenberg, who lives in New York City, is currently at work on a novel about survivors of the Holocaust.

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