A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Maybe 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)