The Dog King
by Christoph Ransmayr, translated by John E. Woods
Knopf, 355 pp., $24.00
Moor is a village, one of a cluster of villages encircled by mountains, presumably in Germany. There used to be a spa resort on the shores of its lake, and some hotels still survive in a state of disrepair. Moor has also been famous for its high-grade granite, and latterly the quarry was worked by slave laborers from a nearby camp. (Seeking to be helpful, the blurb of The Dog King tells us that we may recognize Mauthausen.) The war is over, and Moor has been occupied successively by Siberian troops, a French Moroccan battery, and a regiment of Scottish Highlanders. And finally, as the story begins, by American troops under the command of a Major Elliot from Oklahoma. Major Elliot has principles (the inhabitants of Moor think him crazy), and is determined to keep the wickedness of the locals (no more guilty than anyone else in the defeated country, less guilty than some) ever fresh in their minds. On the terraces of the old quarry he has conscripted the village’s stonemasons to cut a huge inscription, ceremoniously unveiled, reading:
(Less than a tenth, we note, of those estimated to have died in Mauthausen.)
All machinery, including factories, power station, and railroad tracks, is destroyed or taken away, and the outraged people of Moor are ordered to become shepherds, farmers, and diggers of asparagus. This is done in the mysterious name of “Stellamour,” attributed to a high-court justice, Lyndon Porter Stellamour, from Poughkeepsie, apparently the architect of “the Peace of Oranienburg.” Stellamour, “the sole and true name of retribution,” whose image, “a portrait of a smiling bald man, was available in all sizes; it adorned posters, was hung on gates, sometimes took the form of a huge mural covering the entire firewall of some burned-out factory or barracks.”
Moreover the Major requires that four times a year the men of Moor observe strict rituals of remembrance, dressing up as Jews, Gypsies, Communists, POWs, and “race defilers,” and reenacting scenes from photographs of the camp he has unearthed. All this must be carried out as authentically as possible—in striped fatigues bearing triangles, Stars of David, and so on—in the chill of winter and the heat of summer. In doleful procession, the “prisoners” carry loads of stones from the quarry on their backs. But Elliot, who has been known to drive round his fief in a Studebaker throwing chocolates and licorice to the children, isn’t a cruel man; the actors, if they choose to, can provide themselves with stones made of papier-mâché or bundles of rags or newspapers. And, unlike the half-naked figures in the old photographs, they are allowed blankets and old military coats.
The occupation appears to be permanent. At one point we hear that twenty-three years have passed since the end of the war, and two thirds of the way through the novel, in the third decade of the Peace of Oranienburg, an atomic bomb is dropped on Nagoya (sic, not Nagasaki), and the war …