What Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” is evoked with intensity in the prizewinning Serbian-born author’s previously untranslated 1998 novel.
The title characters are two SS officers who were—Albahari’s unnamed narrator informs us—employed to transport Serbian concentration camp “survivors” by truck to what their passengers believed would be safety (in Romania or Poland) but was, in fact, their deaths—by gas pumped into the truck from its exhaust pipe. These bodies—of women, children and old people who had “escaped” being shot—were then unloaded and buried by other Serbian Jews. This horrific scenario replays itself obsessively in the increasingly unsettled mind of the narrator, a middle-aged teacher of literature who attempts to give his young students a sense of their culture’s tortured history, during a class bus trip that retraces the route of the aforementioned death truck, whose victims included 67 of his own relatives. “For me to truly understand real people like my relatives,” he observes, “I had first to understand unreal people like Götz and Meyer.” In claustrophobic cascading sentences contained in a single unbroken paragraph (a technique recalling that of the great Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard), Albahari’s narrator seeks the human faces of the officious pair who were only following orders; who distributed candy to children they were about to murder; who presumably were themselves loving husbands and fathers, law-abiding citizens transformed by historical exigency into unquestioning, obedient good soldiers. The narrator’s imagination falters, his mind spins out of control into something very like madness and the enigma remains unexplained.
Decades later, the Holocaust continues to enslave and inspire the European literary imagination—seldom more memorably than in Albahari’s brilliantly disturbing novel.