There have been hundreds of books about Adolf Hitler all not only detailing how he came to power and what he did once he got there but also trying to get to the bottom of the dictator. Because of his anti-Semitic views, the holocaust and his wilful destruction of millions of lives he rates pretty highly on the evil index. So it is a brave author who decides to put Hitler as one of the main characters in a novel. Norman Mailer does take that on and then to make it even more uncomfortable hurls a fair amount of abuse at the reader.
On the positive side Mailer not only gets you to think about where Hitler’s evilness came from but also makes you ask some questions about the nature and nurture debate as well as provoking thoughts about good and evil in the form of the devil and god. You are forced to dwell on the dark side and conclude that if someone is exposed to brutality in the form of parental abuse and sibling rivalry along with a helping hand from a demon then they might well go onto become an evil dictator. The problem is that Mailer overdoes the darkness and you find yourself being put off by old men who like young boys, mothers obsessed by the faeces and the arseholes of their children and fathers who sleep with their daughters.
The problem is that everyone bar Hitler’s stepsister Angela and his brother Edward all come across as susceptible to the grotesque and Hitler almost gets lost in the line-up. There is also an odd tangent where Mailer’s narrator demon heads of to the coronation of Nicholas the last Tsar. The point seems to be that the devil was busy looking at the bigger picture sowing the seeds of destruction that would lead to the Second World War. The fact he was making it difficult for the Tsar and thereby preparing the way for Stalin implies that he was backing both evil dictators.
This might not be that difficult to read in terms of clearly signposted chapters and a reasonable argument for why the focus is Hitler’s family. The downside is that the book backs off just as Hitler starts to get interesting and close to the man he was to become. It also keeps suggesting that all of the seeds of hatred were planted early on – the bees being gassed by sulphur, the swastika over the monastery school entrance – but a great deal of Hitler’s political thought was shaped by his experiences and response to the German defeat in the First World War.
This book got quite a few plaudits from the book reviewers when it came out and Mailer worked the circuit and most I heard or read applauded the bravery of choosing such a potentially challenging subject. But there is not that much of a story here other than the straight forward one that details the incestuous background of Hitler and exposing how demons work and what they do for their clients.
In fact that is the only real leap of the imagination. The rest could almost be a historical novel expect for the occasions relapses into perverted territory. If you buy into the idea that Hitler was shaped by the devil and a demon could have the possibility of writing a memoir about it then this is a solid go at describing what that world might look like. But that asks the reader to exercise the same sort of suspension of disbelief that you are expected to exercise when you go to the cinema. Because of the nature of reading, that tends to happen over several days, it is hard to maintain the illusion that this is a devil’s memoir and the more that process takes the more the cracks start to show.
This was a tough book to read and one that was certainly not one that was enjoyable but maybe it wasn’t meant to be and that’s why Mailer can be so frustrating.