An “explanation” for the evil committed by Adolf Hitler is the quarry of this searching, somewhat discursive new (2001) novel from the internationally acclaimed Dutch author.
The obviously partially autobiographical protagonist is Rudolf Herter, a prominent Dutch novelist who at the story’s outset arrives in Vienna to give a public reading at the National Library and a lengthy television interview. Herter is thereafter contacted by Ulrich and Julia Falk, an elderly Austrian couple, who have heard the author speculate to his TV interviewer that the enigma of Hitler might be approached by making the dictator a character in a fictional “fantasy” not specifically related to the Fuhrer’s own history. The Falks have a real story to tell: that they worked for Hitler at his Bavarian retreat Berchtesgaden and were commanded to raise as their own son the eponymous child of Hitler and his mistress Eva Braun. Mulisch (The Procedure, 2001, etc.) handles this explosive premise with great skill, moving artfully from the Falkses’ hesitant, guilty disclosures to the unraveling of Herter’s certainties about his own rationality. The suggestion of a soulless “black hole” impervious to comprehension grinds painfully against the novelist’s impulse to tame and order chaotic human behavior, in a synthesis of ideas not notably inferior to that presented in Mulisch’s unruly 1996 masterpiece, The Discovery of Heaven (alluded to slyly here as Herter’s major work, The Invention of Love). Suspense is maintained even when the tale grows meditative or talky, and Mulisch plays expertly with readers’ expectations in its final sequence, which presents revealing excerpts from a diary of Eva Braun’s that is perhaps authentic, perhaps Rudolf Herter’s crowning, compromising “invention.” Few if any other living novelists could make such potentially intractable material so thrillingly dramatic and provocative.
One of the world’s great writers continues his steady march toward a Nobel Prize.