THE PORTAGE TO SAN CRISTOBAL OF A.H. by George Steiner
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THE PORTAGE TO SAN CRISTOBAL OF A.H.

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A.H. is Adolf Hitler--who is found at last by Jewish Nazi-hunters: he's alive, 90 years old, hiding in the boggy South American jungle. But, as you might guess from the byline, this short novel doesn't turn that premise into a thriller. It is, rather, a rich, cynical meditation on the whole range of contemporary attitudes toward Hitler, the Holocaust, guilt, revenge, and evil--as Steiner, sometimes recycling themes from his controversial essays of the past, rides a merry-go-round of reactions to the Hitler capture. In the remote jungle, the four Holocaust-haunted Jews who've found A.H. determine to carry him through the swamps to San Cristobal; if they wait for help, they may lose control of Hitler's fate--and for squad-leader Gideon (who will die of malaria on the dreadful trek), ""to be a Jew is to keep Hitler alive."" Meanwhile, the squad's commander, Nazi-hunter Lieber, waits in San Cristobal--desperately trying to maintain radio contact with the jungle, reciting a litany of Holocaust horrors, and warning the captors to beware of wily old A.H. (""Do not listen to hint now. Guard him better than eyesight. . . Knit the skin to his bones."") Meanwhile, too, a British agent monitors Lieber's radio signals; a cartoonily crass American arrives to exploit the event via the media (""the hottest news break since Jesus got off his slab""); a cultured German legal expert reviews the jurisdictional questions re Hitler's trial and recalls his own passively Nazi past (""What fine words would you have cried out at the time? When the brown men stomped by, the bravest of us wet our pants""); a French official worries that a Hitler trial would expose Vichy as ""a structure out of the heart of French history""; the US State Department indulges in vague doubletalk; and the Russians attempt to rewrite history, fixing the record to show that they always believed A.H. was still alive. (It was a double who died in the bunker.) Finally, however, the focus comes to rest on A.H. himself. Silent for most of the vividly evoked ordeal-journey (he responds only to music on the radio), Hitler is put on kangaroo-court trial when the captors despair of ever reaching San Cristobal--and he instantly delivers a formal, rhetorical lecture to make four points in his defense: Nazi racism was modeled on Jewish racism (the ""chosen people""); the idealistic Jews had to be exterminated because they are man's ""bad conscience""; Stalin and others killed more people; and ""the Reich begat Israel."" Only roughly fictionalized, perhaps, and more a review of stances than original thinking-but a disturbing, sometimes eloquent fantasy/essay nonetheless, fairly spitting with provocative ideas and caricatures.

Pub Date: April 30th, 1982
ISBN: 0226772357
Publisher: Simon & Schuster