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Books: Teaching the Grammar of Hell

8 minute read
Otto Friedrich

THE PORTAGE TO SAN CRISTOBAL OF A.H. by George Steiner Simon & Schuster; 128 pages; $13.50

If Adolf Hitler were finally found alive in the jungles of Brazil, what should be done with him? If he were brought into the room, what would you do? Would you rise?

That bitter game has long fascinated George Steiner, 52, polymathic professor of literature and author of brilliant essays ranging from Homer to Schoenberg and Heidegger. So when he heard that Nazi Hunter Simon Wiesenthal had found the spoor of Mass Murderer Martin Bormann, he began to concoct a scenario: What might happen if a group of Jewish avengers located the Führer? The resulting novel, The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H., has already aroused angry controversy in Britain (“Astonishing,” Anthony Burgess wrote in the Observer, but the New Statesman charged “subversive admiration for Hitler”). The controversy grew last month when Playwright Christopher Hampton presented a stage version now playing at London’s Mermaid theater, that Steiner thought was “too faithful” to his book. That fidelity made the aging Hitler, played by Alec McCowen, a rigid, then suddenly raucous figure, declaiming a justification of his past. “It is a tour de force … to freeze the blood,” said the Daily Mail. “A dramatic fraud,” claimed the Financial Times. U.S. publication of the novel, which is due on April 30, the anniversary of Hitler’s suicide, is certain to prolong and intensify the furor.

What indeed should be done about A.H.? Burn him at the stake, says one of Steiner’s Jewish hunters. That kind of revenge is pointless, argues another. “I’d let him go wherever he wanted inside Israel. With only the clothing on his back. Every single time he wanted food or water or shelter, he’d have to ask for it and say who he was.”

The malign indifference of the great powers is an inevitable part of the portage. In Paris, a French official worries lest the half-forgotten crimes of the Vichy regime be embarrassingly exposed. A German veteran, now a government lawyer, wonders who will have jurisdiction over the prisoner. A boisterous American who flies to Brazil and starts prattling about television syndication turns out to be a representative of the CIA.

Far more interesting is Steiner’s belief that Hitler wielded language as an almost supernatural force. In one of his celebrated early essays, The Hollow Miracle (1959), Steiner argued that just as speech can create, it can destroy; that the language of Luther and Goethe “was not innocent of the horrors of Nazism,” that Hitler found in it “the latent hysteria, the confusion, the quality of hypnotic trance.” He now gives that view a theological turn, an adaptation of the opening statement in St. John: “In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word was God.”

The organizer of Steiner’s posse is careful to warn his agents by radio not to let their prisoner speak while they march him out of the jungle. “When He made the Word, God made possible also its contrary,” says Emmanuel Lieber, who is apparently modeled on Wiesenthal. “He created on the night side of language a speech for hell … There shall come a man who … will know the grammar of hell and teach it to others. He will know the sounds of madness and loathing and make them seem music.”

There are other eerie possibilities in the interplay between language and the inhuman. Suppose, one of Steiner’s hunters reflects, that the saintly scholars who first copied down the holy words of the Torah made a mistake somewhere, and that in this mistake lies the explanation for all the world’s discords. Or suppose, the hunter goes on, it was the unnamable name of God that was taken down wrongly, so that “each time we call upon Him we call in error and cough like toads in the green scum.”

From the sputtering traffic in radio messages, the hunters soon realize that what started as a campaign for justice may end as a fight between rival intelligence agencies trying to kidnap or silence the Führer and rival media packagers trying to sell him. To forestall that, they head deeper into the jungle and put him on trial themselves. Hence Hitler’s climactic defense speech, which turns into one long, hideous embrace.

It was from the Jews, cries Steiner’s Führer, that he learned everything: “To set a race apart. To keep it from defilement. To hold before it a promised land …” What really enslaved mankind, Hitler raves on, was the Jewish invention of a God purer than any other, a God whose “inconceivable, unimaginable presence envelops us.” Says he: “The Jew invented conscience and left man a guilty serf.” The Nazi execution of such inventors brought secret rejoicing to the rest of the world, according to this judgment, but since the Holocaust ended in the creation of Israel, Hitler also claims to be the benefactor of the Jews. “Perhaps I am the Messiah . . . whose infamous deeds were allowed by God in order to bring His people home.”

Such views cry out for refutation in the novel. But after Hitler’s Sturm und Drang, his captors and critics remain mute. In effect, Steiner allows A.H. the last word, and ends on a note of bleak ambiguity: the noisy arrival of the first helicopters from the waiting world beyond the jungle. Portage largely avoids both the satisfactions of the traditional novel and the horrifying details of Holocaust literature. Instead, Steiner has taken as his model the political imaginings of an Orwell or Koestler, and although he has not reached their challenging heights, he has produced a philosophic fantasy of remarkable intensity.

And if Hitler really did walk into the room, would George Steiner get up? Yes. “It’s a dreadful answer that I didn’t expect from myself,” he says. “I stumbled onto it—this profoundly disturbing, almost nauseating answer. But when a certain immensity of history walks into a room, you can’t sit on your bottom.”

Steiner narrowly escaped the immensity of history. His father, a Viennese banker who had established himself in Paris, got his family to New York just before the Germans reached the French capital in 1940. Steiner, then eleven, considers himself “maimed for not having been at the roll call.” He has remained in the shelter of academia, with degrees from Chicago and Harvard, a Rhodes scholarship, a doctorate at Oxford, an appointment to Cambridge’s new Churchill College, a professorship of comparative literature at the University of Geneva and periodic visits to Harvard and Yale. But he says of it all: “I am an exile everywhere.”

The Cambridge exile suits him. A fire crackles in the fireplace. Steiner’s American wife Zara, who teaches history at Cambridge, serves sherry before lunch. His daughter Deborah, briefly home from Harvard, helps in the kitchen (Son David is in New York to try his hand at banking). A large sheep dog settles on the hearth. But Steiner insists that the sense of security is fragile.

“I’m haunted,” he says, “by a photograph in the New York Public Library archives that shows Hitler standing like a beggar, with a torn raincoat, his hat in front of him, and no one is listening to him. But then ten people listened, and then a million . . . My whole work is devoted to language, to the central fact that we can use words to pray, to bless, to heal, to kill, to cripple, to torture. Man creates—and he uncreates—by language. And I have never seen a satisfactory explanation of why there is no brake inside us, nothing which says you can’t say the next thing. This absolutely fascinates me, that there is no limit to the autonomous power of human speech.

“Of course,” he adds, “Hitler could not have done what he did without everybody else. The Germans, who have been at the Everests of abstract thought and intensities of feeling, they went with Hitler into the Holocaust. The Germans saw in Hitler the apotheosis of their history, and they felt that Schopenhauer and Nietzsche prepared for his doctrines. I am very involved with the idea that those who were destined to be at the highest were going to go to the bottom of mankind. But Hitler also has a demonic singularity—there is a sense in which he is every man in our time in the barbarism that goes on.”

Nearly 20 years ago, Steiner wrote that when he listened to his children breathing in the stillness of his house, he would grow afraid. That has not changed. “I am utterly trying to teach my children the sense of vulnerability,” he says, “and keep them in training for survival.”

—By Otto Friedrich. Reported by Lawrence Malkin/Cambridge

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