Evil most banal, in a tale most gripping

Review Novel

December 04, 2005|By VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH | VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Gotz and Meyer

David Albahari (trans. by Ellen Elias-Bursac)

Harcourt / 176 pages

Throughout Europe's midsection the unquiet ghosts of the Holocaust stalk the memories of survivors, shadow the genealogies of their families and prick the consciences of those who might have done something to stop the genocide, yet didn't - most particularly the many soldiers "just following orders." Among them, Gotz and Meyer.

Against this complex backdrop of guilt and memory, loss and retribution, Serbian writer David Albahari positions three characters: Gotz and Meyer, two hapless, noncommissioned SS officers; and an unnamed narrator, a teacher in postwar Belgrade whose family was nearly obliterated by the Nazis and who is determined to pass on the grisly history of the carnage to his students.

Albahari - author of Bait and Words Are Something Else, and the founder and former editor of Pismo, a magazine of world literature - has long written on Holocaust issues. In this latest novel, his Holocaust query and that of the narrator intersect: Who are Gotz and Meyer? Two almost interchangeable men right out of Samuel Beckett. Rather than waiting for Godot, however, they transport Jews who believe they have been reprieved from a Serbian concentration camp but who are in a traveling execution chamber. En route Gotz, or perhaps Meyer, repositions the exhaust pipe, suffocating all within the truck - women, children, the elderly, 67 members of the narrator's family and nearly the narrator himself. Gotz and Meyer have an assignment to gas 5,000 Jews from the Belgrade camp; they take 100 at a time in their hermetically sealed truck. They fork out the bodies, then bury them in mass graves.

Thus Gotz and Meyer are heinous killers. They are also exceptionally ordinary men - husbands, fathers, sons. The rhythm of their days is set by the gruesome killing, which soon becomes little more than a mundane task: They give candy to children they later gas.

Gotz and Meyer are the embodiment of what Hannah Arendt called the "banality of evil." If they were monsters, we could spot them in a crowd. But they are amorphous in their simple ordinariness - a fact that haunts the teacher. He tries to impart this harrowing history (the 1942 slaughter of Serbian Jews was singularly large in Yugoslavia, according to Albahari) to his students as they travel in a bus. He recounts the most elemental and visceral aspects of the lives of those soon to be clawing open their own throats for just one more precious breath. He details, exposes, clarifies, illumines. He must tell them everything so they know.

Albahari has chosen a flat, reportorial style, juxtaposing his brutal, lurid tale against a matter-of-fact narration that becomes increasingly hallucinatory in the telling as the narrator's obsession with who the killers were and why his family perished so horribly overrides his reason.

The horror of Abu Ghraib in Iraq has hovered at the edges of headline news in the U.S. for months, keeping the grim specter of torture alive.

Who were the torturers? Ordinary Americans, like the now-infamous 23-year-old Lynndie England. At the courts-martial, the defense was clear: These were soldiers just following orders; the Gotzes and Meyers of this war. As Albahari layers his tale, it is not just the genocide of recent memory he unveils, but the very concept of genocide - of annihilation, obliteration, the extinction of a people, and its perpetration - as almost blase. His focus is the Serbian Jews, but the horror imbedded in his novel resonates to Bosnia decades later, to Rwanda, Sudan and now, perhaps, Iraq. Albahari's distraught narrator is a Cassandra, declaring in his oracular speech that his students must know what Gotz and Meyer are like - to prevent these monsters from rising again, from rising from their own ranks, from perpetrating the same slaughter of innocents.

Albahari's grim and claustrophobic story pulses with the stolidity of evil: It's thick with the smell of blood and death; it's terrifying in what it says about the animal desire to kill lurking within each of us. Gotz and Meyer ranks with the best of Holocaust literature: chilling, ghastly and altogether too real.

Victoria A. Brownworth has written extensively about the Holocaust and Holocaust literature. She teaches at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

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