Paying for the paper

Robert Alter

  • Life with a Star by Jiri Weil, translated by Rita Klimova and Roslyn Schloss
    Flamingo, 247 pp, £4.99, February 1991, ISBN 0 00 654329 4
  • Mendelssohn is on the Roof by Jiri Weil, translated by Marie Winn
    HarperCollins, 228 pp, £14.99, February 1992, ISBN 0 00 223863 2

It is a critical commonplace, often intoned with pathos, to insist on the absolute discontinuity between what occurred in the Nazi genocide and the realm of ordinary experience. Because of that discontinuity, it is sometimes claimed, the mechanised mass murders are an unimaginable and hence indescribable subject: any representation of them is bound to be a misrepresentation, or, to follow the logic of Adorno’s famous dictum about no poetry after Auschwitz, a misconceived and wrongly consoling aestheticisation. Perhaps there is a laudable motive of respect for the awful fates of the victims in this impulse to draw a categorical cordon around the death camps, but common sense suggests that if there were no strong continuities with the moral patterns of existence before the Holocaust, it could not have happened.

Jiri Weil is the grimly persuasive chronicler of one set of such continuities. Weil (1900-1959), a Prague Jew, was a Communist in the Thirties, but after a sojourn in Moscow during the early years of the Stalinist terror, he became thoroughly disenchanted with Marxism. Once Czechoslovakia fell under Soviet domination, he was isolated and virtually silenced as a writer because of his politics. During the war, he had managed to survive in hiding while most of the Jews of Prague were being rounded up for extermination. This experience marked him profoundly, and in rather different ways became the subject of Life with a Star, published shortly after the war, and Mendelssohn is on the Roof, his last novel, which appeared posthumously in 1960.

Both books are suffused with dread and anguish, though the real enactment of the horror is kept on the horizon – at Terezin, 35 miles from Prague, and in ‘the East’, whence most of the victims would eventually be transported. The two notable exceptions are a scene of mass hanging in Mendelssohn and the last chapter of that novel, an episode almost too painful to read, which reports the torturing to death of two little girls. In any case, Weil scrupulously resists any sensationalist treatment of his subject, anything that might encourage the titillation of the pornography of pain. His style, at least as it is manifested in these two translations, is deadpan, typically employing brief, flatly factual utterances devoid of rhetorical flourishes. The dialogue is of a piece with the language of the narrator. Here is a characteristic exchange, between Josef Roubicek, the narrator-protagonist of Life with a Star, and a fellow worker at the Prague Jewish cemetery: “ ‘What’s left for us?” I asked. “Only time,” said Robert. “But there’s not much of it.” ’

Indiscriminate murder of civilian populations is, alas, at least as old as recorded history. What differentiates the modern German version, as has often been observed, is its implementation through industrial technology – the railways, the gas chambers, and the crematoria – controlled by an elaborate bureaucracy. It is the bureaucracy of genocide that is Weil’s real subject. In Life with a Star, he focuses almost exclusively on the experience of progressive dehumanisation of the victim of the bureaucracy. In the more varied Mendelssohn, which is actually quite funny in some episodes and incorporates the point of view of Nazi officials, including Reinhard Heydrich himself, the main emphasis is on the lunatic ‘rationalisation’ of activity inherent in bureaucracy. What emerges from both novels is a persuasive sense that the bureaucracy of mass murder is quite like bureaucracy as we know it elsewhere, only hideously more so.

Life with a Star has, I think, a clear literary genealogy that underscores the author’s perception of continuities between life before and during the carrying out of genocide. Josef Roubicek, living in a wretched little hole of an apartment, his chief companion an adopted alleycat, cut off from all but the most transient relations with his fellow men, comforting yet also tormenting himself with the hallucinatory memory of the woman he was not bold enough to run away with, is heir to the Superfluous Men of 19th-century Russian literature and especially Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, and a recognisable cousin to their sundry progeny in the West like Sartre’s Roquentin and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, as well as to that other Prague creation, Joseph K. (Weil, it might be observed, earned a doctorate in Russian and comparative literature.) ‘I was a sort of blot that didn’t belong in the picture of the street and everyone seemed to be aware of this. And I was alone among other people, completely alone ...’ Words of this sort could easily have appeared in any of the texts of his literary forebears and relatives, though the particular occasion for his feeling the radical anomaly of his own selfhood is his first appearance in the streets wearing the yellow star on his chest (‘six tips and a word on the star, all contorted and twisted, in a foreign language that seemed to make a face at me’).

Josef Roubicek contends chiefly with the bureaucracy of ‘the Community’ – that is, the Judenrat – which is manipulated from above by the Nazis, and driven by the desperate assumption that in co-operating step by step and delivering the many it may be able to save the few. The offices of the Community are a labyrinth of clattering typewriters and cluttered desks and stacked files, relentlessly grinding out their results of classification and alphabetisation and – the barbaric term fits here – prioritisation. What is pulverised by the teeth of all these bureaucratic gears, as happens even in non-lethal bureaucracies, is the individual human being who wants to sustain the idea of possessing a unique life, of the preciousness of his own hopes and desires: ‘The people in that villa had devoted too much work to Josef Roubicek; it was impossible for him to come out of it all unscathed when so much paper had been covered in writing. I must pay in some way for all that paper and work.’

The progress of the novel is the progressive process of this bureaucratic reduction of the human. Roubicek feels himself hedged in by more and more arbitrary directives: which neighbourhoods he cannot enter, when he may use a tram, when he may be peremptorily asked to get off, at what offices he must make a punctual appearance, which make-work tasks he must perform for the Community. All these procedures, he becomes increasingly aware, are contrived to transform him into another integer on a list of those to be assembled at a collection point for transport to the shadowy East. Near the end, in part through contact with gentile acquaintances in the Resistance, a power of opposition wells up within him: ‘I’m beginning to be fed up living a life someone else made up. I don’t know how to get out of it, but I will.’ The novel ends with Roubicek’s resolution to resist the bureaucracy of extermination and struggle for his own survival. Though this final gesture of defiance is no doubt rooted in the author’s own wartime experience, it seems to me insufficiently motivated in the novel. After bleak acquiescence to the encroaching directives of the Community and its Nazi masters, Roubicek rather suddenly clenches his fists and announces that he will no longer submit to the machinery of death. Such resolve is noble, and morally necessary, but perhaps more difficult to render novelistically than the antecedent experience of insidious entrapment.

Mendelssohn is on the Roof, moving as it does from black humour to horror and from one character’s point of view to another’s, covers more emotional ground than does Life with a Star. Here considerable attention is devoted not only to the victims of the bureaucratic procedures but also to the sense of reality engendered in the bureaucrats themselves by their habitual activity. The task of the workers at the Reich’s Central Bureau in Prague is to see to it that ‘the enemy is turned into numbers ... the numbers transformed again into graphs.’ The ambience of the villa taken over as headquarters by the Central Bureau is evoked in these characteristic terms:

   Death was lurking in hundreds of documents, in file folders, in property deeds, in photographs of houses, villas and factories. It dwelled in signatures and symbols, abbreviations and initials, rubber stamps and graphs. It was neat and orderly, perfectly typed on fine paper, on file cards of various colours. It was everywhere and it filled the house with fear.

The essential operation of bureaucracies, as this passage makes clear, is to distance reality and transmute it into a set of managable abstractions – the reality, in this world, of tortured children, bodies dangling from gallows, naked prisoners marched into gas chambers. (The fear at the end of the excerpt is of course the narrator’s comment, not the sense of the functionaries in the villa.) The bureaucrat works with an unbending logic of systematisation. Weil brilliantly begins the novel by inventing an incident in which the system collides with the untidy circumstances of what lies outside it. Two Czech workmen, supervised by a German soldier, have been sent up to the roof of the Prague concert hall for the purpose of hauling down from among the statues of great composers lining the balcony the likeness of ‘the Jew’ Felix Mendelssohn. The trouble is that there are no identifying plaques and none of the three has any idea what Mendelssohn looks like. The German, having just taken an evening course in ‘racial science’, readily identifies the statue sporting the biggest nose, but that unfortunately turns out to be Wagner. All concerned realise that such a directive – this one comes from Heydrich – must be carried out on pain of death, but no one knows how to do it. A Jewish scholar is found at the offices of the Community and dragged up to the roof, but he proves to be an expert in Talmud, not music history, and in any case he rejects the idea that the Catholic Mendelssohn is a Jew. And so the ominous comedy of errors continues.

Meanwhile the initial scene of the statues on the roof provides Weil the occasion for organising a large part of his novel through a method much cultivated by European Modernists: the development of theme through recurrent motif. Statues sprout on all sides. The German enlisted man of the first scene, troubled with guilt over having exhumed the bones of the Czech Unknown Soldier, thinks: ‘Even a statue can bring forth divine retribution; he had once seen an opera about it.’ On cue, the stone Commandatore from Don Giovanni is soon seen in performance. Heydrich makes a ceremonial speech in which he invokes the statue of Roland, ‘symbol of the German law that once ruled this country’. One of the Czech characters is lying in a hospital dying of a rare disease of gradual petrification. In a macabre moral complement to this physical turning to stone, the head of the Central Bureau silently congratulates himself on his knowledge of the great secret of the Final Solution: ‘It means standing high above all people and looking down on them in scornful safety, like a statue. It means being made of stone or bronze.’ Heydrich, who is characterised at one point as a ‘stone-face’, identifies exultantly with the statues of twin giants in Hradcany Square, one wielding a club, the other a plunging dagger, both trampling their enemies. (The turn through Hradcany Square is on the drive that will be interrupted by Heydrich’s assassination.) In counterpoint to these grim stone images, a Czech resistance fighter in the penultimate chapter – it will end in his arrest – floats down the river looking at the various statues that speak of hope, liberation, victory.

Given the ghastly historical dénouement of his subject, Weil cannot allow himself to represent an actual frustration of the project of the conquerors who aspire to the condition of club-wielding creatures of stone. Even Heydrich’s death, clutching his bureaucrat’s file, which contains the classified information that priority has been given to the murder of Jewish children, is only a momentary mitigation of the Nazi triumph. But Weil uses the structure of thematically-freighted motif to intimate through a turn of imagery a human persistence beyond the reign of deathliness, and I think this intimation may work better than the sudden explicit gesture of resistance at the end of Life with a Star. Carved stone can also manifest the human capacity to hope and to make beautiful things, as we are led to see in the river ride of the penultimate chapter, and Prague itself is at one point called ‘music in stone’, a notion that resists the categories of the Central Bureau. If bureaucracy becomes the petrification of reason into an instrument for the administration of death, Weil suggests that there is a realm of living nature it cannot altogether destroy. As the two little girls are tortured at the very end of the novel, they keep insisting, in order to protect the family that has hidden them, that they have been living ‘in the forest’. And this mantra, through the waves of pain, carries them in imagination into a forest of blackberries and brambles and pine trees. It is the sole affirmation Weil permits himself, having conjured up the petrified world of genocide, and he pronounces it only in the full terror of the moment of death at the end:

   The trees kept growing, victorious and deathless. They held firm, they served, and when they were forced to die they died standing up. They weren’t engraved on memory in cold stone, to threaten or remind. They were the life that overpowers death.