The Portage to San Cristòbal of A.H.
by George Steiner
Simon and Schuster, 170 pp., $13.95
The Frog Who Dared to Croak
by Richard Sennett
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 182 pp., $11.95
Between terms of service as prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli wrote not the worst novel of the nineteenth century; he was one of the precursors. Since then, philosophers and pundits, sages and statesmen have turned to fiction, either to relieve their minds of lighter thoughts or to reach a wider audience. The two books under review are by men not hitherto known for their exploits in the novel.
George Steiner is a critic and a linguist who has also written on public affairs; his book grounds itself on the somewhat unlikely premise that Adolf Hitler did not die in the Berlin bunker, but escaped with a few faithful aides, made his way to South America, and has been living there ever since in the untrammeled depths of a ghastly swamp on the upper Amazon. There he is discovered and captured by a small, intrepid band of Israeli Nazi-hunters. By now (“now” in the fictional context) he is aged at least ninety; but he remains compos mentis, and indeed is capable of sharing with his young captors most of the travail of a long trek through muck and mire, tangled vegetation and matted underbrush, over a high mountain range, and back to civilization. Their radio having disintegrated in the supersaturated climate, the Israeli avengers are unable to call for help or obtain resupply. One last, weak, fragmentary transmission they are able to make; but no reply comes, and they are forced to contemplate a long, an almost impossible, hike out of the jungle with their captive.
On this transcontinental calvary they therefore embark; and very disagreeable it is. They are racked with fever, gnawed by insects, threatened at every step by vipers, and forced to wade through interminable treacherous lagoons. Still, their sufferings cannot be presumed too severe, since ninety-year-old Hitler keeps up with them, and even thrives on a regimen that leaves his casehardened captors, sixty years younger and trained to a fine edge, staggering and delirious.
This South American episode is not the most convincing part of Steiner’s fiction. After wobbling, gaunt and desperate, through hundreds of miles of trackless jungle, and wading up to their necks in slimy bogs, the raiding party pitch camp, and one is surprised to find them in possession of a splendid set of camping paraphernalia, which must have left bare the shelves of Abercrombie and Fitch. A Primus stove, a bedroll apiece, a tent (with mallet and pegs for setting it up), mosquito netting, a hurricane lamp, mugs, plates, spoons, cigars, and, climactically, tins of meat and noodles. The tinned noodles are a particularly choice touch—as if these walking skeletons struggling through an endless swamp might not have calculated the advantages of carrying their noodles dry and cooking them in some handy water. Compared to Steiner’s Israeli raiders, Cooper’s Indians, so joyfully derided by Mark Twain, are creatures of shining intellect.
Steiner is not much more at home with the idiom spoken by his characters than he is in the …