An exhaustive, dialogic novel of Auschwitz, centering on the role and trial for war crimes of the real-life Victor Capesius, a pharmaceutical-company representative who became SS pharmacist and, despite friendships with Jews and being himself half Jewish, selected victims for the gas chamber and profited from their gold.
The narrator, haunted by his own distant connections to Capesius, who taught his mother dancing, and “Adam,” the self-described last Jew of Schäßburg, a secret camp diarist, use their dialogue to thread together accounts of survivors, SS soldiers, camp leaders and Capesius himself, absorbing memories, trial testimonies, conversations, letters and personal reflections. The narrator struggles to make sense of the horrific accounts of systematic murder and intimidation. While rich with sadistic, sickening fact, the dialogic framework opens windows into the psychological dimensions of this hell: the conflicted impulses of survival and altruism, as well as the self-hatred buried beneath the Germans’ persecution of non-Germans. Replete with the sadistic details of the Nazis’ program of racial purification, these intertwining and often conflicted accounts reflect the nightmares and self-delusions of participants as well as the tenacity of souls grappling to maintain some toehold on meaning amid the nihilism. The narrator seizes on the redemptive powers of poetry and language, manifested in the human spirit standing up to the void—a Rabbi at the moment of his own slaughter condemns his killers, a child’s eyes glint before the barrel of the small-caliber Mausers used in executions. Adam has inscribed his diaries in the German detested by the oppressed but defends this as the perfect medium for his account, despite the polyglot languages of the camp. For he sees himself as both a German and a Jew, and it is in his German, not the debased German of his captors, that he preserves an epic of conflicted identity.
Difficult to stomach in its encyclopedic panoply of horror, but effective in its visceral recall of a present not so far removed from this waking nightmare.