domingo, janeiro 21, 2007

Hitler outra vez :desta por Norman Mailer.

"Portrait of a young Dictator" ou Hitler segundo Norman Mailer

Da edição de ontem do Wall Street Journal, transcrevemos a recensão da última novela de Norman Mailer,The Castle in the Forest num artigo de Thomas Mallon. Pelos vistos Hitler continua na crista da vaga como tema de ficção política...
"In a 1975 interview, Norman Mailer, the existential Milton of American prose, wondered whether "God and the Devil war in the galaxies," and he dared to posit the intervention of each in big human events, with the Devil being served, as he put it, by "adjutants, aides [and] little demons." It was Mr. Mailer's sense that one "can dramatize these notions in a major novel, but only a major novel. You would wreck a minor novel by introducing such ideas."
[The Castle in the Forest]

Mr. Mailer can rarely bring himself to do minor, and "The Castle in the Forest" is indeed major. It is his first novel since "The Gospel According to the Son" -- the 1997 book that reimagined the story of Christ -- and puts him back in ontological territory, this time its darker reaches. Now Hitler's boyhood is his subject, and the narrator is one of those satanic "adjutants" that Mr. Mailer imagined in that long-ago interview. The result is a nervy and sometimes pratfallen story, both absorbing and absurd.

Dieter ("You may call me D.T.") identifies himself in the book's first paragraph as having been a member of an SS intelligence unit supervised by Heinrich Himmler. Only on page 71 do we learn that he is actually "an officer of the Evil One," the Devil, who assigned him to Adolf Hitler, "the wild beast of the century," at the very beginning of the Fuhrer's life. "He was my client," Dieter finally reveals, like a Victorian heroine saying, "Reader, I married him."

Throughout his charge's infancy and childhood, D.T. is never privy to the reason that his boss has taken such an interest in a little Austrian boy nicknamed "Adi." The narrator seems to be tasked with alternately bolstering and undermining the boy; at one point he even wonders whether the "Maestro" of Hell is trying to drive Adi to suicide. He cultivates the boy's "fear of embarrassment" -- something "prodigious in Adolf" -- and devotes especially careful, modulated attention to making Adi hate his pompous martinet of a father, Alois, who retires as a customs official of the Austro-Hungarian empire when his son is still quite young.

No doubt is left that the Devil got in on the ground floor of the Hitler phenomenon: Dieter may not have been present at the Fuhrer's conception, but he "was able to ingest the exact experience by calling upon the devil (of lower rank) who had been in Alois' bed on the primal occasion." A reader may wish that a less observant cadre had been assigned; the coupling, offered in slobbering detail, isn't the stuff of operetta.

Incest has often been seized upon as a comforting possible explanation for Hitler's derangement and enormities. Mr. Mailer allows it to run rampant through the Fuhrer's family tree, giving fictional validation to each historical suggestion of it. The twisted sexual strands ensure that "Klara Poelzl, who would become Alois' third wife and Adolf Hitler's mother, was not only Alois' wife but also his blood daughter." Which would seem to say that Hitler's mother was also his sister.

As for the ultimate spawn of this tangle, Mr. Mailer succeeds in making the young inbred Adi into something vividly charmless. The boy is the poisoned apple of his mother's eye, but he responds to her occasional criticisms with rage; against his father's punishments he cultivates a "will of iron." Adi may be good at German history and war games, but he enjoys seeing a dog beaten, is stirred by the aroma of a dead rat and perhaps deliberately gives his baby brother the case of measles that kills him. His own sulfurous body odor is a gift not of the Devil but of God (the "Dummkopf"), who, Dieter explains, is "able to mark each of our clients" with a useful identifying smell. What Adi does get from his satanic handlers is the idea that "blood possessed magic. It could be shared by a people. When he looked at the strongest and most handsome boys in his class, he tingled."

The novel is sprinkled with emblems and episodes that constitute a kind of jokey foreshadowing: Young Adolf attends a Benedictine school where a swastika adorns the monastery gate; during some masturbatory experimentation he realizes that he can sustain his effort "even while his arm was raised" at a Heil-Hitlering 45 degrees; and his father suggests that Linz could stand a better opera house. When Alois is forced to gas a hive of bees that he is raising, readers are advised by the narrator against teasing out the too-obvious allegory -- a warning that does more to underline it than anything else.

And yet, a reader who prejudges "The Castle in the Forest" to be no more than a mechanical joke will not be doing justice to Mr. Mailer's complete and sometimes admirable seriousness. At its best, the book -- to which the novelist dutifully appends a long bibliography -- is attention-sustaining and uncartoonish. The incestuous Hitlers are a kind of grim Tolstoyan family, convincingly unhappy in their own way. Alois in particular is a fine, nuanced portrait of bourgeois pomposity, an autodidact willing to worship the emperor who gives him a pension but not the God who gave him life. In many ways, the novel belongs to him. (In a similar way, Mr. Mailer's 1995 nonfiction study of Lee Harvey Oswald belonged to a transfixing portrait of the assassin's mother, Marguerite.)

"The Castle in the Forest" is most compelling when it's most earthbound, but Mr. Mailer can't stop turning his attentions from the family hearth to the contested heavens. And while one hardly wants to discourage anyone's big-thinking inside the neat, Cornell-boxed world of current American fiction, Mr. Mailer's Dummkopf-Maestro agon is often no more cleverly imagined than second-tier sci-fi.

Both God and the Devil operate, we learn, on limited knowledge of each other and the universe they're competing for. The Devil's party is even hamstrung by budgetary problems as it goes about its strategic business of implanting false memories; installing dreams like computer chips; and encouraging "cheap" prayers while thwarting the more serious kind. Human beings, we are informed, surrender their souls only gradually and sometimes not forever: "Complete possession rarely occurs." Operatives like Dieter must continually combat some tough, angelic opposite numbers, the nicely named "Cudgels," who somehow suggest Spencer Tracy with wings.

As always, Mr. Mailer's mind teems with propositions and hypotheses, some of them provocative. He wonders through Dieter if God may have been losing his mojo as the 20th century began: "Were we now awash in the dithering of an old divinity?" A more sublunary idea -- that paranoia "is preferable to poor powers of anticipation" -- is vintage Mailer. Alas, so is the somewhat weary theory that emotional repression causes cancer (this time in Hitler's mother), as well as an almost compulsive preoccupation with the proximity of the human sexual apparatus to the excretory one, another Mailer theme.

The limited power and knowledge of a Devil's functionary makes Dieter a perfect unreliable modern narrator -- blinkered, non-omniscient, his perspective always ripe for overrule by another point of view, the same as an angel's would be. Dieter's tendency to digress comes partly from being spread too thin in his duties: He invites readers to skip, if they like, a long narrative set-piece about his doings in the months surrounding the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II, a kind of extended business trip that forces him to miss Adi's seventh birthday.

No, a writer cannot fit all of this, along with theories of the universe, into a "minor" novel, or at least a short one. But Mr. Mailer's late career has been badly imperiled by an elephantiasis that has infected too many of his books, from his CIA novel ("Harlot's Ghost") to his studies of Oswald and Picasso. As that career moves through a seventh decade, the reader feels his own exasperation increasing, even if his admiration remains undiminished.

What achievements -- and what failures! -- lie in Mr. Mailer's mighty wake. When reading Dieter's envoi, it is hard not to hear the voice of the author himself, a Brooklyn Prospero not yet willing to lay down the tools of his art: "I must admit to a surprising degree of affection for those of my readers who have traveled all this way with me. I have come so far myself in offering this narration that I can no longer be certain whether I still look for promising clients or search for a loyal friend. There may be no answer to this, but good questions still vibrate with honor within."

There is yet more to come, and any reader who remembers the awe with which he first came upon Mr. Mailer four or five decades ago will, despite anything, stick with him to the end."



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