Monday, November 1, 2010

Douglas Messerli | Voices from the Dead (on Harry Mulisch's Siegfried)

With the death on Saturday of the great Dutch writer Harry Mulisch, I thought it would be appropriate to repost an essay I wrote on his novel, Siegfried, which I reviewed when the English language edition appeared in 2003.

Voices from the Dead
by Douglas Messerli

Harry Mulisch Siegfried (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 2001)
Harry Mulisch Siegfried, translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent (New York: Viking, 2003)

For more than a third of Harry Mulisch’s 2001 fiction Siegfried the reader is immersed in the terrifying confessions of an elderly Austrian couple. The narrator of most of this fiction, Rudolf Herter—a world-renowned Dutch novelist—has been invited to Vienna to lecture and read from his work. During a radio interview granted the day before the lecture, Herter is sidetracked in his discussions to consider the issue of fiction as representation as opposed to historical representation, which, in turn, leads him to the conclusion that perhaps the only way to get at the nature of a hateful figure such as Hitler is to “capture” him in fiction.

Over the next several hours and day he becomes almost obsessed with the idea of attempting to understand Hitler, not through a “political, historical, economic, psychological, theological, occult representation,” but by exploring the inexplicable beginning with a “highly fantastic but not impossible fact and mov[ing] from mental reality into social reality,” “not from the bottom up but from the top down.”

After his lecture-reading, an unpresuming Austrian couple who have heard the interview introduces themselves, expressing their desire to tell him a secret about Hitler never before revealed. He agrees to meet them the next day at an old-people’s home in the Vienna suburbs where they live. Over the next eight chapters, the Falks, swearing Herter to secrecy for the remainder of their lives, slowly confess to their involvement in a horrendous Nazi atrocity that perhaps more clearly reveals Hitler than any other incident. Through a series of political accidents and coincidences, the Falks have found themselves working as personal attendants for Hitler and Eva Braun at the renowned Berghof fortress. The Falks gradually describe events surrounding the notorious couple, culminating in their revelation that when Eva becomes pregnant with Hitler’s son, the Falks are asked to adopt and care for him as if he was their own.

Through a series of carefully timed travels and preplanned scenarios, Hitler’s son, Siegfried, is born and given over to the Falks. Although Eva continues to be near and watches over the child’s upbringing, the Falks become Siggi’s parents, allowing them, accordingly, greater access to knowledge of some of the terrible secrets of Hitler’s household, information with which any fiction writer seeking to write on the subject could not but be utterly fascinated.

As German cities are increasingly destroyed, however, and Hitler and his officers progress further and further in their mad plots to destroy all Jews, a horrible command is relayed from Hitler through Bormann that Falk must kill Siggi, the boy he now perceives almost as his own son. With no choice other than death to him and his wife and possibly their families as well—deaths which, moreover, would not alter the inevitable murder of the boy—Falk shoots Siegfried at the Berghof rifle range, framing it as an accident.

The events described by the Falks drive Herter later that afternoon into a kind of intellectual madness as he attempts to comprehend Hitler—within the context the philosophies and life events of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Wagner—as an Antichrist of “nothingness.” Like many believers in conspiracy theories, Herter makes improbable links between ideas and events such Nietzsche’s warnings about such an “Antichrist” in his writings (“One may deliver the young criminal to me; I shall not hesitate to destroy him…”) and the philosopher’s subsequent madness at the very moment of Hitler’s birth; connects Wagner’s hatred of Jews with the “Final Solution”; and links Hitler’s birthplace “Braunau” with the color of Nazi “brownshirts,” the Munich headquarters, the “Brown House,” and everything else of that color: “Brown did not occur in the spectrum; it was a shit color that was created when you smeared all the colors of the spectrum together on a palette—and that thought reminded him of something that explained everything seamlessly. In Dr. Wille’s clinic, the duty doctor noted of Nietzsche in the month of Hitler’s birth, “Often smears feces.—Wraps feces in paper; and places them in drawer.—Once rubs feces on leg like ointment.—Eats feces.”

Herter’s younger companion, unable to comprehend the ravings that have overtaken her lover, insists that he rest before their airplane ride home.

So far in this fiction readers have perhaps willingly followed along with a story that the narrator-author—seemingly inseparable from Mulisch himself—has predicted: a fiction revealing “highly fantastic but not impossible fact and mov[ing] from mental reality into social reality.” The shift to the more wildly conjectured “coincidences” of historical and philosophical facts, however, radically alters the direction of Mulisch’s fiction. Even if one were to accept the Falks’ shocking revelations as “fictional fact,” it is more difficult to respond to the tenuously posited linkings and associations of the narrator’s mind. In a sense, the reader has the feeling that not only, perhaps, has the character become somewhat mentally unhinged, but—since it is difficult to separate him from the author—the author has also begun to lose control of his narrative, spewing out somewhat irrational ideas that have long been held within. Given the normal precision of Mulisch’s writing, one reads Herter’s disjunctive associations with some sense of embarrassment. What are we to make of these rambling connections of fiction and fact?

Even though he recognizes that the author’s subject is one that can only illicit irrational reactions—as the author suggests, Hitler is after all a singular figure of evil, unlike even Nero or other such destructive beings—the next section of this short fiction propels the reader into stranger terrain. Purporting to be a previously unknown diary of Eva Braun—destroyed in the raging fire that killed her and new groom, Hitler—these fragments relay the stories behind the reasons why Hitler murdered his only son and why he married Eva on the eve of their deaths. Eva’s writings indicate that Himmler (or perhaps another disaffected Nazi henchman) had created a dossier on Eva and her family that (falsely) indicated that she was one-eighth Jewish.

Hitler had no choice, he claims, but to destroy the child so that he could never come to power. Eva, attempting to understand how being even one-eighth Jewish could have had any effect on his being, Hitler—like all insane believers throughout history who argue for a racial-purity—argues, as if from rational logic:

“An eighth!” he shouted contemptuously. “An eighth!
Birdbrain! Why don’t you read a book occasionally in-
stead of just fashion magazines? Then you would know that
every generation throws up a full Jew according to Mendel’s

Hitler marries Eva primarily to placate her, to compensate, so to speak, for her loss.
Strangely, this impossible narrative told from the viewpoint of a woman who loved this monster even after he destroyed her own flesh and blood, makes Hitler all the more human, portrays him as a monstrous bigot, perhaps, but still as a man who, believing in principles, is betrayed by the faith he has put in those he has gathered near him. In a sense, Eva’s fictional diary disputes the metaphysical posturing of Herter’s recent diatribe.

As if Mulisch had not yet created enough dilemmas for the now somewhat confused reader—a reader who has begun to wonder, perhaps, from where the voices of this fiction emanate—the author tells us in the last scene that Herter’s companion Maria returns to the room to find him dead. The only remnant of any stories with which the reader has been presented—other than his somewhat mad conversations with Maria—is a strange cry Herter’s tape recorder has captured: “…he…he…he is here...,” similar to an outcry that Julia Falk has heard from Hitler during a nightmare.

Accordingly, we have to wonder who has spoken the words of this book: the narrator who has been told the Falks’s story, promising to keep it secret, is now dead; Eva Braun’s diary—even if it had truly existed—supposedly was destroyed with her death. Granted, Siegfried, the book I hold in my hands, is a fiction, nonetheless the voices the author has portrayed as relating the substance of this work are by fiction’s end all dead. One has the strange feeling that the highly fantastic recounting one has just experienced has been wiped away in the process of its telling. And we are left, like Herter, with a terrifying vacuum, a story told by the dead.

In part, I suppose, it depends upon how the reader interprets Herter’s cry in the dark; who is the he which so terrifies him in his sleep: Hitler? Satan himself? The angel of death? Perhaps the author comes to wipe away the fiction he has just told in order that “something” or “someone” will not be created out of the “nothingness” that destroyed so many millions of human beings?

Throughout the fiction, Maria and others warn Herter/Mulisch that in attempting to “net” Hitler he may also humanize him and even allow him to be conceived as a sort of anti-hero. Doubting the sanity of our now dead narrator, and left with no one to confirm or deny what we have just overheard (actually “over-read”), Hitler remains a cipher, a true zero. And we have no choice but to rub our eyes as if in completing this tale we have just awakened from a deep sleep.

Los Angeles, July 10, 2003

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