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Sunday, November 16, 2014

A very good novel (with an identity problem)

By Eric Weil / For The Herald
Here’s a very good book that passes itself off as a different kind of very good book.

Its name is Las buenas personas, and it’s about a German man under Nazism and a Russian woman under Stalinism. They both help keep the machinery of their respective regimes humming. Their lives unfold separately until the novelist, a 30-ish Israeli, brings them together under circumstances that are plausible yet surrealistic in their historical absurdity — but that’s how they appear with hindsight. In that period they seem more or less reasonable to the two of them, at least initially.

The essential issue, however, is the kind of persons they are. From the title, “Good People,” onwards — and whatever the degree of irony with which that phrase is used — this would appear to be a novel about run-of-the-mill people who put aside their qualms about Hitler and Stalin.

But this is not the case of Thomas, the German, and Sacha, the Russian. They just aren’t ordinary folk with an ordinary conscience to struggle with.

All his life, Thomas has only been interested in the manipulation of people. His only interest is demonstrating his superiority and showing control. And Sacha? Before the action of the novel even begins, she has already turned a family friend in to the NKVD secret police, in the hope that, with this show of good will, she can save her parents from being arrested too. The point is that not for a moment is she seen to consider that the apparent need to betray the family friend is regrettable.

Her later actions and impulses are worse. One may theorize that many people who do bad things purposely go on to do worse to show themselves that they don’t care — and, therefore, that it doesn’t matter. Has author Nir Baram set out to develop this concept? Conceivably. But in any case, the action of overcoming the initial misgivings an ordinary person would have is missing.

The novel’s lead characters don’t sell out, whether out of convenience, lukewarm feelings or fear. They are presented as amoral to start with. Thus, the title is misleading. So is the wraparound band the volume is sold in, which asks, “What would you have done?”

That question is only meaningful in the context of people with a conscience. The silent majority of “good people” who go along with awful regimes muzzle any doubts, willingly or unwillingly, but at least had a conscience originally.

The possibility must be considered that the title wasn’t Baram’s choice but was imposed on him by the publishing company, which usually has the contractual right to the final say on the title. However, reading some interviews which Baram has given, it emerges that he really considers he has written about how ordinary folk helped Hitler and Stalin by silencing their ethical doubts.

There is a very important point to be made. Authors have every right to write about anything they feel like; in this case, Baram had the right to write not about ordinary citizens but about exceptional moral automatons. And there’s more. Authors have the right to title their books anything they want (bar the above-mentioned rights of their publishers). They may, if they so desire, write a South Seas teenage romance and title it “The Electrician’s Handbook,” or, in a Dadaist mood, “Blank Pages.”

But then, their readers also have every right to form their own opinion about whether they have been misled or not. And the reviewer has the obligation to give potential readers an accurate idea of what is in the book they may buy. That is the most basic thing a review is for.

So much about what kind of book Las buenas personas isn’t. Now, about what it is. What remains to be added can be stated succinctly.

It contains a lot of riveting reading. The way it immerses us in the daily atmosphere under Nazism and Stalinism is a tour de force. Particularly the Russian part, as it depicts a world in which everybody suspects that ultimately nobody will escape arrest. A world in which people speak to the walls — where the NKVD microphones may be planted — pathetically praising the regime and its executions of enemies of the people.

The critical praise which has been showered on this book is like a writer’s wildest dream. A German newspaper said, “Dostoyevsky would write like this if he lived in Israel today.” Except that feelings of guilt are, as explained, less of an issue than careerism, it isn’t too much of an exaggeration. In its specifically Stalinist setting, Solzhenitsyn also comes to mind.

Las buenas personas, by Nir Baram (Alfaguara); 552 pages, 279 pesos.

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