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Public Faces

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 South American jungle. Hitler, fortunately, does not say anything for most of the book, but the Israeli raiders talk among themselves a high-pitched, rhetorical dialect not much like anything spoken by people of this world. They are often bookish, sometimes rabbinical in their phrasings, and coyly esoteric in their allusions. (One of them, by coincidence, is a literary critic, who, as it happens, has written a book with exactly the same title as one of George Steiner’s. Need one remark that it was received with ecstatic critical acclaim, which is amply quoted?) On the other hand, an American newsman who gets wind of the capture and flies in to the nearest airstrip is made to sound like a city-desk wisecracker from a play about Chicago in the 1920s. For a man whose interest is in language, Steiner turns out to have a surprisingly tin ear.

A second unit of the novel deals, mostly satirically and a good deal more successfully, with the legal and political complications to be anticipated from Hitler’s reappearance—rumors of which spread rapidly through the world. The German legal expert, the French diplomat, and the American news conference are caricatured, to be sure, but less broadly than one might have anticipated; the Soviet doctor, whose life was ruined because he thought Hitler might still be alive, is dredged up and given to understand that perhaps he was right all along. All the rationalizing and exploiting devices of the international publicity machine are mobilized, and with them Steiner has some of the best fun of the novel. Finally and climactically, Hitler, before being turned over to the press, is invited by his captors to defend himself in a set speech which is certain to be the most discussed, as it is the most remarkable and objectionable, feature of the book.

Hitler’s most un-Hitlerian speech is in effect a sophist’s collection of evasions, fractional truths, and unquestioned assumptions. He was not alone in his crimes, so he declares, he was not as bad as Stalin, and so forth; he was the victim of circumstance. But he also goes on to argue that in much of what he did he was only imitating the Jews themselves. They carried out massacres in antiquity, they declared themselves a chosen people, they created an exclusive God. Jesus deepened the sin of the Jews by asking more of mankind than the human conscience can bear, and Marx capped the climax by promising heaven on earth, to be achieved by ruthless cruelty. Not only did the Third Reich follow these Jewish precedents, Hitler concludes, but the Holocaust was a necessary precondition to the creation of Israel—and so, presumably, regardless of the motives of those carrying it out, a Good Thing.

This is so curious a mixture of sophistry, evasion, distortion, and provocation that one doesn’t know exactly how to take it. In conjunction with Hitler’s incredible physical endurance on the journey, the sudden overpowering volubility of his “defense” may be intended to demonstrate the enduring power of evil, or something of the sort. Implying that it is a triumphant, an unanswerable case is more questionable. Logic just as shoddy as Hitler’s passes current in the world today, and is used confidently as it was by Rosenberg and Goebbels to abuse scapegoat peoples; it needs little encouragement, less romanticizing. Mr. Steiner’s final ten pages are an effective attention-getting device. As such, one may or may not find them faintly disgusting.

Richard Sennett, author of The Frog Who Dared to Croak, also comes to the craft of fiction by way of a career in academia; his themes also are contemporary and political. A doubtful inspiration has led Mr. Sennett to tell the story of his protagonist, Tibor Grau, in the form of documents describing episodes in his life, and alleged to have been received in a disorderly bundle by the publisher after Grau’s death. Stories told through documents such as letters rarely give us a clear and present sense of events, either physical or moral, at the moment of their occurrence: one thinks of Pamela scribbling in her night-time chamber detailed accounts of Mr. B.’s latest lecherous advances.

Such as they are, at any rate, the documents comprising this batrachian fiction concern episodes in the checkered career of Grau, alleged to be a brilliant Jewish Hungarian philosopher. Ostensibly devoted to the communist cause, he is really cynical about it and at last consciously hypocritical in his submission before its discipline. He is not very Jewish (never associates with another Jew), and not very philosophical (never takes a philosophical position); in addition, as the story reveals, he is a committed homosexual, who during most of his life has had to camouflage that aspect of his life as well.

He therefore comes off as a remarkably gray personage himself, through whose career parade a sequence of hazy, almost uncharacterized personages. His homosexual partners are dim, his miserable and long-departed wife a distant and on the whole unwelcome memory. We are given to understand that the narrator’s academic career is fairly successful—that he holds positions, attracts students, and is invited to lecture, not only in Eastern Europe, but in the West as well. By conniving, by trucking, by evasions, and by the timely application of obsequious formulas couched in the accepted jargon, he maintains—not without a measure of self-contempt—a position in the world.

Yet all this time the title of the book and the balance of its energies lead the reader to anticipate that the lid of falsity will some time be lifted, the frog will some day take his courage in his paws and let go with an authentically froggy cry of “Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax.” The occasion at last arrives, after the Budapest rising of 1956; Tibor Grau, like Hitler in Steiner’s novel, is allowed to deliver an uninterrupted and apparently uninhibited political speech. Whether, under the circumstances, the line of action it proposes is prudent and practical hardly matters. Fictionally, it is not a particularly shrewd or original speech; and, above all, it is not daring in the slightest degree. Its three points (or rather, allowing for overlap, two and a half) are that armed struggle against the Russians is futile, that in the world today there is no such thing as neutrality, and that any freedom gained from the Russians would increase Hungary’s dependence on the Americans. The conclusion is that the Hungarian people, giving up all thought of independence, should content themselves with trying to obtain relatively minor concessions from their Russian masters.

Perhaps from the mouth of a frog these words would be considered audacious. By contrast with the sharp, sardonic spirit that one recognizes in the exiled Czech Milan Kundera (not to mention even more strident voices from Yugoslavia and Poland), Professor Grau’s manifesto does not seem very—let’s say—cogent. To Grau’s amusingly naïve surprise, his fellow Hungarians seem to sense this, and after a bit of official foolishness, in which he exhibits his familiar skill at manipulating official palaver, the professor is allowed to retire.

The author’s attitude toward this curious nonperformance, this act of political fiasco, remains doubtfully defined, and a lot of the doubt is generated by the pervasive metaphor of the frog. This is said to derive from an old Transylvanian folk tale about a young frog who had the courage to croak, as frogs are supposed to do; he attracted thereby the attention of a larger beast, who ate him up. This piece of cautionary Carpathian beast lore Professor Grau had occasion to rewrite and reinterpret in an orthodox socialist sense during the Béla Kun dictatorship of 1919.

Apparently its basic wisdom impressed him, for though he repeats the tale several times in the course of the novel, giving it each time a different form and a different point, his behavior in 1956 seems clearly inspired by the meeching message of the original version. Does the author, then, think this behavior appropriate to a man or a frog? As an inglorious, or perhaps the better word would be “contemptible,” survivor, Tibor Grau stirs the reader of his story to mingled and perhaps inconclusive responses. Behind the gray, I am afraid, looms all too distinctly the awful question, so what? Some may claim that the book gains from the resemblances between Grau and the Hungarian, Jewish, and Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács. But Lukács would have to be made more convincing than he is here if he were to become an interesting character in a novel.

The inability of satire and parody to lay hands on the public events of our time is an old, sad story. What grotesque exaggeration could possibly add sardonic emphasis to the already distorted contours of everyday public life? Leaving one’s ironies too open, one’s point of view too undefined, may be a way of tantalizing the reader into thought; it may equally well envelop a novel’s effects in so many shades of perhaps that they fade away like Cheshire cats. Both these novels are built on equivocation. Steiner’s heavy melodrama may create more of a splash in the world than Sennett’s undramatic ambiguities; but neither book makes a satisfying work of fiction.

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