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What is Evil? What is it that produces an Adolph Hitler?
Hannah Arendt famously wrote of "the banality of evil" suggesting, perhaps, that the propensity for evil lies in the heart of each of us. The source of evil, say some, is in our genes. Others argue it is in our culture. In reality we are clueless. Mailer attempts to solve the dilemma fictionally by introducing personified Evil in the form of Satan, aka The Maestro. When we first meet the narrator, Dieter or D.T., he's an S.S. officer serving under Heinrich Himmler (who we are told is obsessed with the study of incest) just as the Second World War is ending. He reveals that he is, in reality, a minor bureaucrat in hell. Dieter's assignment has been the Hitlers, and he takes us back to the mid-19th century to share his inside information on how Adolf Hitler came to be Adolf Hitler. Early on, Dieter says:
I am ready to speak of the obsession that revolved around Adolf Hitler. Yet what brings more of a dark cloud to one's mood than living with a question that will not return an answer ... Where is the German who does not try to understand him? Yet where can you find one who is content with the answer?
I must surprise you. I do not have this particular trial. I live with the confidence that I am in a position to understand Adolf. For the fact is that I know him... I know him top to bottom. To borrow from the Americans, given their rough grasp of vulgarity, I am prepared to say: "Yes. I know him from asshole to appetite."
And indeed that is what Mailer gives us: Hitler from asshole to appetite.
Mailer has always been obsessed with evil. He has, after all, dedicated books to the likes of Gary Gilmore and Lee Harvey Oswald. But in The Castle in the Forest Mailer sets his sights on the early days of one of history's most enduring and perhaps least understood villains, Adolf Hitler. The question "When did Evil enter Hitler's soul?" is answered by Mailer, "At the moment of his conception" just as God, in the New Testament story of the birth of Jesus, is present at the moment of his conception.
As Joel Yanofsky points out in his March 2007 review in the Canadian Review of Books, "There have been books written and movies made about the young Hitler before, but the twist here - twisted might be a better word - is that a significant portion of Mailer's novel focuses on the time before Hitler was born. It's a kind of a portrait of a megalomaniac as a gleam in his father's eye."
Hitler, from birth to boyhood and on to the death of his father, is presented as one member of the Hitler family (the book concentrates heavily on Alois, his father) who is a "normal" kid in a family polluted by incest. He is a fratricidal, masturbating, scheming, cowardly, hateful, spiteful, fire-loving, clever fellow who finds pleasure talking to the trees in the forest and in watching bees incinerated. Mailer's take on Evil here seems to be that history is and always has been a struggle between the transcendent forces of good and evil, between the Dummkoff (God) and the Maestro (Satan), and that humans are mere pawns in the struggle. In the epilogue, for example, we are told that after the end of WWII the Maestro decides to reassign his "resources" from the Nazis to the Arab/Jew conflict to produce the chaos of the next world war.
In this audio version of the novel, Harris Yulin gives us a rich and varied reading of the story using his acting talent to provide credible voices for the many characters of the Hitler family. It comes in fifteen CDs or about 17.5 hours of listening. (I rowed the equivalent of the length of Vancouver Island while listening to it on the gym's rowing machine over a two week period.) In the opening we are told, "You the reader must be prepared for no easy occasion." It is not always easy, but it is well worth the investment of time for the power of the narration, if not for the new insight into the nature of evil.
J. M. Coetzee in his excellent review of the novel in the New York Review of Books [The Castle in the Forest] straightens out the characters:
The genealogical descent of Adolf Hitler is tangled and, by Nuremberg standards, not entirely kosher. His father, Alois, was the illegitimate son of a woman named Maria Anna Schicklgruber. The most likely candidate for paternity, Johann Nepomuk Hüttler, was also the grandfather, through another liaison, of Klara Pölzl, Alois's niece and third wife, mother of Adolf. Alois Schicklgruber legitimized himself as Alois Hitler (his choice of spelling) at the age of forty, some years before he married the much younger Klara. The rumor never entirely died down, however, that Alois's real father--and therefore Adolf's grandfather--was a Jew named Frankenberger. There were even dark hints that Klara was Alois's natural daughter.
There are several surprises in the narration. One of the most moving sections of the book is the description of Alois taking his old dog, Luther, out into the forest to put it down. He uses a knife to the heart instead of a gun because it is a more dignified death for the dog. As the dog dies his face change through all the stages of his life, from puppy to young dog to old and finally dead animal is described in moving detail. My description here does not do justice to the power of the scene, and a lesser artist might easily fall into sentimentality, but Mailer does not.
Using a devil for a narrator allows Mailer all the freedom an artist could possibly want: freedom to enter the minds of characters and animals, freedom to bounce from time to time, freedom to pontificate, to speculate. Positing supernatural forces to "explain" the evil of Adolf Hitler, however, adds nothing to the understanding of evil or of Hitler. As Coetzee correctly points out, "...The Castle in the Forest does not demand to be read at face value. Beneath the surface, Mailer can be seen to be struggling with the same paradox as Arendt. By invoking the supernatural, he may seem to assert that the forces animating Adolf Hitler were more than merely criminal; yet the young Adolf he brings to life on these pages is not satanic, not even demonic, simply a nasty piece of work. Keeping the paradox infernal–banal alive in all its anguishing inscrutability may be the ultimate achievement of this very considerable contribution to historical fiction."
© 2007 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is a retired teacher of English and Philosophy who is currently an Honourary Research Associate in Philosophy at Malaspina University-College in British Columbia, Canada.