MYSTERY MAN - The bee-keeper's son

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  • Published 6.04.07

The Castle in the Forest By Norman Mailer,
Random House,
$ 15.75

“You can call me D.T.” Norman Mailer’s latest novel, intended as the first part of a trilogy that would cover the earthly life of Adolf Hitler, begins with Dietrich, a former “SS man”, introducing himself in these words. This deadpan tone, almost banal in its matter-of-factness, though typical of Mailer, is also deliberately cultivated for several reasons. The beginning harks back to the opening of the ur-American novel of ideas, Moby Dick (“Call me Ishmael”), signalling thereby, Mailer’s generic affiliation. Further, the affinity with Melville extends to the shared preoccupations of these novels: a genealogy of the super-human. Melville had perceived the gigantic white whale as the Leviathan, a beast of apocalyptic potentials in the Bible that had shaped Milton’s vision of Satan. In its capacity for destruction, Moby Dick was as terrible as the Führer, each possessed by inscrutable demonic energies that would unleash incredible catastrophes on humanity. Yet, evil is not a word that is vast enough to describe these monsters of nature and their wager with the rest of humanity.

The sea mammal was a creature dredged out of primal human fears, an inhabitant of nightmares that visited the sailors. It owed its reality to popular superstitions, the tales of mystery and imagination that created Poseidon, the Loch Ness monster, or the whale that swallowed up Jonah. Divine and diabolical wrath came together in such envisionings of fear. Hitler, by contrast, is not a rarefied idea. As the engineer of the most unspeakable genocide in world history, he cannot be turned into a philosophical notion, a signifier of evil. Hitler absorbs evil into himself: his was the enterprise that “oversteps and shatters any and all legal systems”, as Hannah Arendt wrote to Karl Jaspers in 1946, when the Nuremberg Trials were going on.

Mailer writes about Hitler’s humanness with disarming credulity. The narrator, D.T., believes that “the world has an impoverished understanding of Hitler’s personality ... the most mysterious human being of the century”. Hitler is not just an enigma, he is also a Mystery, created by celestial designs, a phenomenon perhaps difficult to believe. D.T. resents “the authority of the scientific world” that makes people scoff “at the notion of the Devil” who had, as he goes on to show, struck a Faustian deal with Hitler the moment he had emerged into the world. In fact, the Devil made Adolf his own from the time of his infernal conception, a scene Mailer decsribes with characteristic voyeuristic relish. In bed, Hitler’s father, Alois, sinks into a momentary stupor, a deathly palsy, before he revives miraculously. He then thrusts his “Hound” into his “damned church-mouse wife”, Klara (“the most angelic woman in Braunau”), who knew “she was giving herself to the Devil ... she knew he was there with Alois and herself, all three loose in the geyser that came out of him, and then out of her, now together, and I was there with them, I was the third presence and was carried into the caterwauling of all three of us going over the falls together.”

Milton’s account of Satan’s encounter with Sin and Death at the hell-gates, in Paradise Lost, Book II, informs this passage, at once self-parodic and seriously immersed in its own melodrama, so much so that this hysteria structures the progression of the story. Mailer invokes the frenzy of Milton’s devilish trio and adds to it the pornographic glee of the “third presence” (his narrator) who knows that this union was incestuous. In fact, the frighteningly tangled family romances of the Hiedlers (who adopted a more refined surname), the many intra-familial marriages, sexual deviances and incestuous relationships become so riveting in the first few chapters that one doesn’t worry too much about D.T. Quite soon it is revealed that D.T. is only a “simulacrum of a human”, a denizen of hell, protégé of his infernal Maestro, who influences the course of Hitler’s life, and, by extension, human history, through his power to implant ideas and dream-etchings in the human mind.

Mailer has always thrived with such serio-comic plots. From his early novels, tragedy has been inseparable from bathos, comedy informed by bilious fear, his protagonists shaking with irrepressible giggles even as they are eroded by a profound world-weariness. In the excellent, but sadly underrated, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, the narrator, appositely named Tim Madden, fights off a couple of cut-throats on a back road on Cape Cod, while the heads of two blonde ladies remain hidden in the trunk of his car. His dog goes for one attacker, as Madden gets the other one with a kick on the head. Then he yells out in pain, “That broke my big toe.” Even as one is carried along by the breathless excitement of the thriller, one cannot help laughing out and wondering simultaneously whether this is sheer creative exorbitance or pure lampoon.

In The Castle in the Forest, such mixed feelings are never far away from each other. There are beautifully lyrical passages describing the ethos and eros in the lives of bees, as Alois Hitler embarks on apiculture. Even as one reads them mesmerized, one is visited by the thought of Beëlzebub and his clan transforming into swarms of bees, drowning the arcadian strains of nature with their droning. Young Adi’s (as Hitler was called at home) first visit to the opera to listen to Lohengrin, his addiction to Wag- ner (he claimed to have attended at least thirty performances of Tristan und Isolde), and his dream of becoming a great artist reveal him as unshakably human, but only provisionally so. These familiar, human journeys end up in the labyrinths that are unutterably horrific: young Hitler masturbating as he hears his father’s haemorrhagic cough in the next room, or giving the kiss of death to his five-year old brother, Edmund, infecting him with the measles from which he had just recovered.

What is the aim of such historical fictions? How, if at all, do they advance our understanding of Hitler’s humanness? Creative non-fiction, especially of the variety that Mailer has used in Marilyn, The Executioner’s Song, The Naked and the Dead, and most recently in The Gospel according to the Son, offers a history of inwardness rather than an intelligible history of the past. As a genre it succeeds most luminously when history cannot make sense of its own trajectories, when, at times, it fails to explain how evil evolves, as in the ‘evilution’ of Adolf Hitler. The amorphousness of this genre, with its free association of fact and fiction, can become a means for understanding the limits of our epistemological sophistication. Mailer has explored the intellectual reach of his genre with consummate skill. His novel of ideas is a tribute to a glittering array: Shakespeare’s villains, Goethe’s Faust, Milton’s devils, Grimm’s fairy tales, Freud’s case-history of Little Hans and his theory of the Uncanny, Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” and “The Beekeeper’s Daughter”, the Marquis de Sade’s theatre of cruelty. Yet, underlying these literary, social and political histories lurks Mailer’s edginess, his reckless, paranoid imagination, unstoppable even in his eighties.