The Gates of the Forest
The Last Gentleman
Elie Wiesel, who as a child was deported to Auschwitz and survived only by a remote chance, has experienced in his own person the ravages of an evil so vile as to be almost beyond comprehension; and he has courageously set himself the task of comprehending it in literature. Wiesel has already written a documentary account of his experience in his shattering short book Night (1958); now, in The Gates of the Forest, he works over the theme again, this time not only as a witness and victim but in the spirit of a man trying to solve an urgent philosophical problem: Having survived, how can we go on living in a world where such things happen?
The Gates of the Forest has a plot which would be quite adequate to the needs of an ordinary novel of suspense and tragedy, but in fact its main concern is to present a series of symbolic episodes which are strung out along the narrative thread. All these episodes concern the question of identity. It is as if the survivor, living on when so many have died, felt the need to live out in his own person the unfulfilled lives of all his companions: felt, indeed, the pressure of all the dead, demanding that he should realize their possibilities, live for them, act out their histories. Gregor, the Jewish adolescent who manages to slip out before the ghetto closes on him, and takes refuge in a cave in the forest, is beset at once with the problem of identity. Seeking sanctuary with an old family servant, he is compelled to act the part of a deaf-mute under the eyes of the inquisitive villagers, who first accept him with pity but soon begin to use him as a confidant for their sins and troubles; since he can (apparently) neither hear what they say nor answer back, he is the ideal scapegoat to lighten their burdens, and even the village priest puts Gregor in the confessional box and confesses to him. This process leads ultimately to a frenzied scene in which Gregor is chosen to play the part of Judas in a religious drama written by the village schoolmaster. The other actors, quickly joined by the audience, fall into a mass hysteria in which they suddenly see Gregor as Judas and go mad with rage. He is saved from death only by the intervention of someone who happens to be outside the hysterical circle. Here we have a neat allegory of the history of the Jew in modern Europe; but that is only the beginning for Mr. Weisel is not content with any such simple objective, and Gregor is forced by the pressure of his experiences to assume role after role, to act out the lives of his fellow Jews who have been killed or who will be killed later on.
Thus, for instance, the Judas theme is repeated when Gregor falls in with the partisans, goes on an unsuccessful mission which results in the capture and death of Leib, their much-admired leader, and on his return, when the others not unnaturally question him about what happened, suddenly begins to distort the facts so as to present himself as a betrayer who willfully sacrificed the leader for some advantage of his own. Again he is saved from death by the intervention of someone who does not fall under the spell.
BUT NO SHORT DESCRIPTION could do justice to the symbolic range of this book. At the very beginning, while he is hiding in the cave, Gregor is joined by a character called Gavriel, who completely dominates him spiritually and then saves his life by an act of supreme self-sacrifice. After Gavriel has gone, Gregor has the sense that his own identity has gone too; Gavriel has drained it away and taken it with him. And this, too, is a symbolism satisfyingly complete and fundamental to the book, for it was the angel Gabriel who announced the birth of the Messiah to the Virgin Mary, and to the Jews trapped in the Nazi slaughter-house the core of their anguish is the realization that the Messiah has not come to save them. Gregor continues to seek for Gavriel throughout the story; indeed, it is as a direct consequence of this search that Leib is captured. Finally, years after the war, Gregor attends a religious meeting in New York; there he sees Gavriel again, eagerly questions him, begs for his identity back, and is sarcastically rebuffed. Is this man really Gavriel, or is Gregor blinded by his need? No answer is given; Gregor is led to the synagogue by a child, who appears as gratuitously and yet as appropriately as the child in Waiting for Godot, and the story ends with Gregor at prayer, and in particular at prayer for the soul of Leib; “Yes, the last Kaddish would be for him, our messenger to heaven.” But Gavriel is also our messenger to heaven, and in this twilight world his identity has crossed with Leib’s, and both are identified with all the millions who died.
To say that this is an important book would be an understatement. It is an achievement for which we should all be profoundly grateful. Belsen, Buchenwald, and Auschwitz changed the world for all of us, just as Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed it. Our problem is to try to live in this world with sanity, with laughter, and with trust in one another. Wiesel has shown us how to approach that problem. The Gates of the Forest is one of those books, like Dr. Zhivago, that restore one’s faith in life by wrestling with a despair too huge to be described.
THE LAST GENTLEMAN is also a complex and ambitious novel, though in what precise area its ambition lies is harder to discern. It seems to be “a novel about the South”—the quotation marks are intended to placate the refined horror of Southern literati at so blunt-fingered a description—inasmuch as its central character is a young Southerner, unfailingly courteous and affable in manner, chivalrous to women, amiably puzzled by Negroes, who suffers from bouts of amnesia that leave him unable to remember his own name: a serviceable, if somewhat hackneyed, key symbol for the journey of the modern South back to self-recognition. By an initial thundering coincidence (the more up-to-date a novelist is, the more he seems to hanker to relate himself to Victorian fiction in some way), this young man makes the acquaintance in New York of a family of rich and miscellaneously archetypal Southerners, neighbors of his own family, erstwhile friends of his dead father, who are on a visit to that city because their youngest member, Jamie, is in a hospital there. It turns out that Jamie’s illness is incurable; the young amnesiac is persuaded to return south in the capacity of Jamie’s companion; and by this honorably arthritic plot device we see the Southerners—the family, their neighbors, the landscape they live in—through the honest if forgetful eyes of the young man.
From that point on, the novel—I was about to write “goes to pieces,” but that would be inaccurate because pieces is exactly what Mr. Percy is intent on serving us. He avoids plain narrative as if it were poison ivy. Everything is prismatic, discrete, a matter of half-conveyed hints; the reader has to work so hard to sort out what is going on that after a while he begins to congratulate himself: This isn’t just any old novel, but a novel written for very alert people. Important questions of motivation are consistently varnished with irony until they become too slick to take hold of. All the characters are lightly brushed with satire, including the central character himself, so that at any given moment it is quite impossible to tell whether Mr. Percy is entirely behind what he is telling us or slightly to one side of it—and if the latter, which side. And—it goes without saying, in this kind of novel—central plot episodes are presented in so glancing a fashion, because of the author’s holy dread of straightforward narrative exposition, that the reader, glued to the page in the effort to decipher the story, cannot muster the energy to feel moved.
There is, of course, nothing accidental about this. Mr. Percy is a breathtakingly brilliant writer, and it is part of his brilliance that, having taken one’s breath, he hands it back with a smile of ironic knowingness. At the end of the book, one has the impression of having covered a thousand miles on a bicycle exerciser. Live? Our servants will do that for us! In one episode, for instance, the solitary Negro student at a Southern university is chased by a lynch mob. At least, that is what seems to be happening, but the filigree of epigrammatic prose keeps so daintily aloof from narrative that there is no energy to spare for an unseemly rush of emotion. The raw experience is there, but it is neutralized. In the same spirit, Mr. Percy twice introduces a character whom he calls “the pseudo-Negro,” a white photographer who has darkened his skin with medicament so as to observe Negro life from the inside. This man is portrayed satirically, but to even up the score the whites who threaten him with violence are also made to look ridiculous; in the end, nothing is conveyed except the author’s blandly neutral cognizance of such matters.
To be fair, there is one character in the book who seems definitely to stand for something: a man called Sutter, black-sheep elder son of the Southern family. Sutter is a kind of holy lecher—he has a strong line about pornography being a moral positive because it recognizes Christian values in order to subvert them, rather like the blasphemies of Baudelaire at tenth hand. Sutter has written down his philosophical thoughts in a notebook, and the hero is made, quite against character, to filch this book so that he can keep looking at it and thus provide the story with little injections of essay material. I suggest that it is now time for a moratorium on this device.
AFTER THIS PROLONGED EXPOSURE to tongue-in-cheek virtuosity, it is pleasant to find oneself, in the work of B. Traven, in the presence of a seriousness as considerable as Mr. Wiesel’s. The relationship does not end there, for Traven, too, writes about the insulted and injured. His theme is Mexico, and in particular the Mexican poor: And among these poor he focuses especially on the Indian, the human being so utterly dispossessed that he has nothing except his stoical courage to carry him on from day to day. The Indians, as Traven depicts them in book after book, are slaves; whatever may be their theoretical status in the eyes of the law, they are in fact outside the law, unprotected against any degree of exploitation and cruelty. So many modern nations have employed slavery as an economic and political instrument that the slave’s life has become one of the major themes of modern literature during the same decades in which jazz, a music invented by slaves and full of the monotonous desperation of slavery, has swept the world. But, like all major themes, it is treated at many levels.
To compare, say, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch or Black Boy with a novel by Traven is to spotlight the essential difference. Traven is not a “protest” writer. The hatred of cruelty and injustice is there in his work and is an important source of its power, but his vision is too deep and complex to stop short at the simple registering of indignation. Any decent person is likely to rise from a reading of Traven with the feeling that justice for the Mexican Indian is one of the crying necessities of world politics; but if Traven were merely a protest writer this would be all he would feel, whereas in fact something much more wideranging has been conveyed.
What is it, then, that Traven conveys? The question is no easier to answer briefly than it would be in the case of, say, Conrad. Both deal with men in circumstances of loneliness and hardship; both value courage and resourcefulness, but, unlike the bulk of adventure-story writers, they explore these qualities not in a vacuum but firmly fixed in a framework of values. Traven combines a lyrical joy in the abundance and beauty of creation with a stoical acceptance of human cruelty and treachery. In a novel called March to Caobaland, dealing with the unendurable sufferings of an Indian timber worker, he pauses in the narrative to remark, laconically:
So great is the number of men who enjoy tormenting and tyrannizing their fellow-humans in the cruelest manner that State Governments never run short of wardens for chain gangs and concentration camps.
This fact, for it is a fact, Traven faces unflinchingly. The tragic dimension is present in everything he writes, and it is a tragedy that springs from human wickedness: He avoids both the modern foolishness of despair-of-the-universe and the Victorian foolishness of saying that God, or the gods, should be ashamed (“When the President of the Immortals had finished his sport with Tess,” etc., etc.). Traven is a major writer, big enough to recognize that many men are monsters without allowing himself to be driven into seeing the entire human race as monstrous.
Another thing that gives Traven’s work its distinctive flavor is that he has evidently studied the Indian with devoted attention, and thus presents him not merely as a suffering dummy, the abstract type of exploited man, but in living psychological and environmental detail. The title story of The Night Visitor, for instance, is a ghost story of the straightforward, unashamed sort, about an interred Indian nobleman whose carefully built tomb, deep in the jungle, is disturbed by rooting pigs, and who comes to the solitary white farmer and begs for help in building up his defenses. A ghost story? Yes, but so is Hamlet. One senses in Traven’s story a complete imaginative identification with ancient Mexican beliefs about the soul. No ordinary literary man, sitting in his study and casting about for a good spooky idea, writes this kind of thing.
THE NIGHT VISITOR, judged as a collection, is scrappy, but it contains a number of superb examples of Traven’s art, and should put an end to the neglect he has suffered in North America. Most of the essentials are there: the unstinted joy in life and its abundance (notably in “The Cattle Drive,” not a story but a beautifully written descriptive piece), the contempt for the dry husks which the white man has tossed to the native Mexican in place of his birthright (“When the Priest is Not at Home” is a mordant little satire on Mother Church that reminds one of Anatole France), and the reverence for the beauty and profundity of Mexican tradition (most notably in the folk-tale “Macario”).
Traven, as everyone knows, avoids publicity, conceals his identity, and will answer no questions about his work. Good luck to him, especially in an age when many writers get homesick if they find themselves more than fifty yards from a television studio. But one question I would like answered: Does he write in English, Spanish, or German? Even Charles Miller in his helpful and intelligent Foreword to The Night Visitor does not clear up this point, though he tells us more about Traven than anyone knew before. My own guess is that the original language of Traven’s work is not English, or at any rate not consistently; every Traven book one picks up seems to be written in a different style, which argues a multiplicity of translators. In The Night Visitor the prose changes from story to story, the general level being rather low. Traven’s work (so far as I have investigated it) is couched in an English so execrable that one has a struggle to piece together the meaning amid the wreckage of grammar and syntax. Perhaps the first step towards adequate recognition of Traven in the English-speaking world would be to scrap these inadequate translations and have his work re-translated by some person or persons who can string an English sentence together.
However it comes, I feel sure that recognition for Traven is not far off, and when it comes it will be resounding. He is the only living writer who is capable of rivaling the Conrad of Nostromo and The Shadow Line. His publishers here should be given every encouragement in their plan to bring out a substantial number of his books.