Vulpes Libris

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Death Is My Trade/ La Mort est mon métier (1954) by Robert Merle

La mort est mon métierMaybe it’s a little bit of a cheat to review a book that is, as far as I can tell, no longer in print in its English version but if I do here it’s because I stumbled over this book and, against expectatations, found it exceptional. Its impact on me has only increased since I turned the final page last week.

It is a first person narrative of Rudolf Lang, a fictional character based very closely on Rudolf Hoess, the Nazi Commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp. After Hoess was captured in 1946 he was interviewed by the American psychologist, Gilbert, during the Nuremberg trials. His report was the inspiration for this novel by Robert Merle. It’s the only novel I’ve read about the Holocaust (and I’ve read a few) written from the perspective of a perpetrator rather than a victim.

The first half of the novel evokes formative circumstances and events in Lang’s early life, his disturbing relationship with his oppressive, deeply religious father who has decided that Rudolf will become a priest and his weak mother who fails to defend her son. After the death of his father, Germany replaces God as his ideal and Rudolf joins the army where he wins the Iron Cross for bravery in World War 1. After the war, he fails to integrate into working life partly due to his unwillingness to subvert unreasonable management demands for the sake of solidarity with his fellow workers. His commitment to duty even at a high personal cost is evident early in life.

The second half of the novel charts his progression through the ranks of the SS to Obersturmbannführer, head of the Auschwitz camp and eventually responsible for all the concentration camps Konzentrationslager (KL). In a chilling section Lang describes his attempts to resolve the technical problem that is the liquidation of the Jews. As he examines the issue in terms of ‘units treated’, ‘output per hour’ and ‘maximal efficiency’ it gives the reader a frisson to realise he is talking about human beings. Merle manages to give us insight into a character who is consistent both as a cold, unfeeling exterminator and a good (at least judged by the norms of his time) husband and father. Lang’s reaction to his job contrasts with that of his second-in-command who takes refuge in sadism and eventually commits suicide. Lang remains professional, distant, efficient but never brutal on a personal level. Two exchanges are revealing, one with Lang’s wife when she realises that he is in fact gassing the inmates of the camp.‘Well then,’ she said in a low voice of contained violence. ‘You should have refused to obey.’
I almost shouted : ‘Elsie-’
And for a second, I was unable to find my words.
‘But,’ I said, my throat constricted. ‘But, Elsie, what you are saying – it’s… the opposite of honour.’
‘And what about what you are doing ?’
‘For a soldier, to refuse to obey ! And in any case, it wouldn’t have changed anything. They would have discharged me, tortured me, executed me… And you, what would have become of you ? And the children ?’
‘Ah,’ said Elsie. ‘All that, all that…’
I interrupted her. ‘And it would have been for nothing anyway. Someone else would have done it in my place.’
Her eyes flashed. ‘Yes, but you,’ she said. ‘You wouldn’t have done it.’

The other exchange is during an interrogation by an American officer during Lang’s trial. Land is disorientated, trying in vain to find his marks.

‘I concentrated on the technical aspect of my job,’ I added. ‘A bit like an aviator who drops his bombs on a town.”

‘He responded angrily, ‘An aviator never annihilated a whole race.’

I thought for a moment and said: ‘He would do if it were possible and if he had been given the order.’

In a limpid, unembellished prose, Merle makes no attempt to excuse or accuse Lang or even to explain his actions. The real strength of this novel is that it takes its themes out of the realms of history and makes them real and relevant to life today. If the sign of a good book is one that asks all the right questions without answering any of them, then this is a great book.

Gallimard, 1976, 369 pp., ISBN: 2070367894 (French edition)

23 comments on “Death Is My Trade/ La Mort est mon métier (1954) by Robert Merle

  1. Jackie
    October 27, 2007

    It would seem to be a definite challenge to write about this subject in any sort of objective way, yet your review makes it sound as if the author has done just that. I know I wouldn’t be able to do it. This would help answer some of the questions of how people were able to do such horrific things, though my sense of condemnation would remain the same. I’m sure the book would be available through interlibrary loans, even though it’s out of print.

  2. marygm
    October 27, 2007

    Jackie, so often, when talking about this terrible thing that was the Holocaust, terms like monstrous, insane, inhuman are used but in this novel the author managed to make the MC human and yet there is no excuse possible. That this monstrosity can exist within human nature makes the reader (at least it did me) much more uncomfortable than if it can be dismissed as an aberration. It’s a fine line the author walks but IMO he does it perfectly in this novel.

  3. Ariadne
    October 27, 2007

    This sounds like a fascinating book. I have always felt that one of the objects of literature is to make us understand – not the same thing as condone – and that’s one of the reasons Lolita is one of my favourite books. I will see if it’s possible to get hold of a copy out here, I need some encouraging to read books in French!

  4. Leena
    October 27, 2007

    This reminds me of Doris Lessing’s ‘Prisons We Choose to Live Inside’ – a very short book, more of an essay-pamphlet really. If I remember correctly, she argues it’s essential that we accept atrocities of this kind not only as being human, but as something we might all be capable of in the right (or rather, wrong) circumstances, because that’s the only way we can prevent them from happening again. And it does make sense: think of them as ‘inhuman’, and it not only renders us helpless but absolves us ‘normal people’ from responsibility. But take a closer look at the behavioural patterns, and what you see may make you uncomfortable, but it’s empowering too.

  5. marygm
    October 27, 2007

    Ariadne, it’s not a difficult one to read in French either. Good luck!
    Yes, Leena, that’s what I meant about this book, I’ll look up the Doris Lessing essay.

  6. Trilby
    October 27, 2007

    I sense a Doris Lessing bonanza coming on…am about to start The Golden Notebook, and Prisons We Choose is on my Amazon wish list! I’m fascinated by works which attempt to get inside the mind of the “outsider”, although the current trend seems to be to do it badly (I couldn’t stand The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas for this reason). Shall certainly keep an eye out for Merle, though. Thanks for the tip!

  7. Eva
    November 29, 2007

    Hi everyone!

    I read Merle´s Death is my trade in Hungarian and I think the book is amazing. I would like to buy it in english but cannot find it anywhere. If any of you knows where on the internet I could order it I would really appreciate if you would email me to homokozolapat(a)yahoo.de. It would be a big-big help.

    Thank you in advance!

    Eva

  8. marygm
    November 29, 2007

    Hi Eva,
    Sorry, I don’t think I’ll be able to help. I did do a search for the book in English, even second-hand, but couldn’t find it anywhere which is a real shame because I found it an amazing book too. It bowled me over. I’ve just got my hands on another of his books, ‘Malevil’, so I’m looking forward to that.

    Mary

  9. Necros
    June 7, 2008

    Hi,

    I see you liked this book from Merle, so I strongly recommend Madrapour too. It’s set on a plane the whole time (well, except the first and I believe last few pages -it was a long time ago) but it’s very interesting. But of course I loved Death is my trade too, it’s a real masterpiece.

    William from Hungary

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  11. Jessica
    August 13, 2008

    one of my favorite books ever. read it in french a few years ago for class, then bought it for myself and re-read it eagerly. i am looking for a copy for my english speaking boyfriend who’s really interested in nazi history, and i just cannot find it. i have found uk sellers on amazon but they sell the book for a almost 1000 pounds (close to 2000 dollars). i know the english prints are from the 50s, but still… there must be something wrong. if anyone finds anyone who sells them i’d be so happy to hear it.

  12. Jessica
    August 13, 2008

    oh by the way… scatteredpolaroids (at) g m a i l . c o m

  13. Ebayer
    September 10, 2008

    Hi, yesterday we have put this book into Ebay (U.K.) – available worldwide, no reserve price. It will be on until 19th Sept 2008 – 20:15… Good luck with bidding should you like to try to obtain this copy… It’s one of the truly great books and deserves more English readers! I guess I read this novel 5-6 times in my life, in German and in English, and all of my friends and family as well.

  14. Moira
    September 10, 2008

    Thank you … We’ll be interested to see how much it sells for.

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  16. Thomas
    December 3, 2008

    Merle, one of my favorite writers, back from Hungary. Behind the Glass was my first reading and since then I read everything he wrote, wanted to have my wife read Death is my Trade, I guess she needs to find it in Swedish!

  17. Ildiko McAuley
    January 3, 2009

    I read this book when I was 16 an Hungarian…I am a huge fan of Mr Merle….I couldn’t sleep for two days afterwards……it is actually based on the fact that the main character was the only civil cervant of the Nazi regime receiving death penalty in Nurnberg, although the rest of the story is fiction….I am desperatly trying to get hold of an English copy with no luck so far…but I will always recommend this particular book to anybody to read….if there are ancestors to horror stories , this is definitely one of them with a fantastic insight of what the combination of the German resession and the Nazis did to German people especially mentally!I really wish they reprinted it again!!!!!

  18. Adam Gerbert
    February 6, 2009

    Well, interesting, I also read this book in Hungarian as fortunately all of his novels have been translated. It’s a shame and absolutely amazing to me that English don’t know his works – apart from a few. My girlfriend is Polish and I would love to give her an english copy of this book. But I guess either I have to find it in Polish or she needs to learn French or Hungarian…

  19. steve hirschhorn
    April 2, 2009

    This book is an uncomfortable read and I can certainly understand why someone might have trouble sleeping after reading it. I was astonished to find myself feeling a degree of sympathy with the protagonist who only did what he believed to be right – i know it’s a cliche but ‘obeying orders’ was what he lived for and couldn’t conceive of not doing so. although his actions were inhuman and inhumane I found myself struggling with the notion that he was not an evil devil incarnate but a poor lost soul who couldn’t act on his volition but needed orders to follow to function. In the final analysis he was shocked that his boss committed suicide when he should have stood by his subordinates – as he himself did.
    By the way, I do have an English 1st edition if anyone wants to make me an offer.

  20. Richard Hajnal
    September 11, 2009

    Hi there,

    I read Merle´s Death is my trade in Hungarian as well.
    I think the Hungarian translation is one of the best but the book itself is just amazing.

    Anybody can buy the book on the following link:

    http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/m/robert-merle/death-is-my-trade.htm

    It is quite expensive though.

    I think I will buy one and make a lot of photocopies and sell them for £20.
    Did you hear it Dragons’ Den team? :)

    Anyway highly recommended.

  21. TwirlMyMustache
    May 5, 2010

    I love your review!
    As a French major, I’ve translated a good chunk of this book into (American) English for a course in translation. As I haven’t read the existing (British) English version, I would be very interested to know how what I have compares to this one and if a freshly translated edition would be worthwhile.

  22. Mary
    May 5, 2010

    Hello, I haven’t been around for a while but I see lots of people have commented recently on this book.
    I just wanted to pick up on a comment above “…he was not an evil devil incarnate but a poor lost soul who couldn’t act on his volition…” One of the things that struck me about this book is makes you rethink about what evil is. It is hard to define. There is the usually defined form of evil which is an active sadistic seeking to harm but then there is a more common form which is to allow harm to happen or to participate in that harm through a lack of courage.
    One of my favourite quotes from Maya Angelou: “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage. ”

    (Hello foxy women, I hope you are all doing well…)

  23. john m
    June 4, 2012

    I have come across a digital copy of this book in English, just let me know if you are interested. mothermurk@yahoo.com

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This entry was posted on October 24, 2007 by in Entries by Mary, Fiction: historical and tagged , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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