April 2010

Guy Cunningham

fiction

A Jew Must Die by Jacques Chessex, translated by W. Donald Wilson

“What is that?”

I was with friends; they asked what I was reviewing. Unthinkingly, I pulled out Jacques Chessex’s novel A Jew Must Die and showed them the cover. The look of sheer horror on their faces told me this was a mistake.

“It’s an anti-Nazi book,” I assured them. They knew that already -- they’re my friends, after all, and they’re fully aware I’m not a closet skinhead. But the title still disgusted them. One of them even told me to make sure not to take it out of my bag on the subway (I didn’t). I don’t blame them for being put off, though; the title made me uneasy too. That seems to be the point.

This is a blunt book, with little concern for the reader’s comfort. In less than 100 pages, Chessex takes us through each stage of the murder of a Jewish businessman named Arthur Bloch. It is 1942, and a group of Nazi sympathizers in Payerne, Switzerland, intend the killing as “birthday gift” for Hitler -- who they’re convinced will reward them when Germany inevitably invades.

Nearly every sentence is dedicated to the facts of the case -- who inspired it, who planned it, and what they did to execute it. We meet a viciously anti-Semitic former pastor, Philippe Lugrin, who inspires the plot, boasting of his connections to the Nazi party. And we see a local derelict, Fernand Ischi, assemble a team to carry it out. But they never become fully fleshed out characters; we hear only of the murder, and how they contributed to it. Even the triggerman -- a hapless lackey named Ballote -- registers as little more than a name.

The author wants us to focus on the act itself. His narrative voice is often clinical and detached. Details are kept spare. Bloch’s death is described in the most stripped-down language imaginable: “The forehead is pale, shining with sweat. A moan, accompanied by rattles in his throat. Ballote fires. Bloch’s body collapses to the ground. A trickle of blood comes from his mouth.”

As a native of Switzerland -- the book was first published in French last year -- Chessex’s interest in the story is obvious. Though officially neutral in the Second World War, Switzerland saw its share of pro-Nazi activity during the 1940s. In fact, A Jew Must Die is inspired by real events. It is hard not to see the book as, at least on some level, an interrogation of Swiss anti-Semitism. One of the book’s most striking passages concerns not the perpetrators, but the people of Payerne, who respond to Bloch’s disappearance with indifference: “And even those who would denounce Fernand Ischi and his gang at the trial still mock the Jews and their age-old terrors. A cattle-dealer has disappeared? An interesting turning of the tables: that’s what people think in Payerne.”

What keeps this from being merely a Swiss concern, however, is the way Chessex uses subtle shifts in voice to shape the reader’s experience. At times the narrator seems almost omniscient, filling us in on Bloch’s business contacts in Payerne or Ischi’s taste for violent sex. At other times, he exhibits a palpable disgust with the culprits, calling Lugrin “perverted.” And on several occasion, he seems to speak for the murderers themselves, such as when he declares “We mustn’t get caught.” This is a very delicate experiment -- and a largely successful one. It gives Chessex a great deal of control over his readers’ emotional response to the story.

At one point, the narrator even speaks on the reader’s behalf. It all starts when he describes Ischi as an “apprentice Nazi Gauleiter” (party official). Suddenly, the narrator is interrupted -- “‘Gauleiter?’ you say. ‘Isn’t that going a bit fast?’” The key is Chessex’s use of the word “you” -- he is addressing the reader, and implying “you” are defending a Nazi. Throughout, the narrator returns to this subtly accusing tone. The reader is not an audience but an accomplice. It is not only the Swiss who are meant to examine their consciences.

A Jew Must Die pushes readers to question their own moral culpability -- no small achievement. It is not a perfect book -- its narrow focus means it is ultimately not as definitive as, say, Elie Wiesel’s Night or Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man. And the book’s cold, almost remote tone will put off many. But by subtly widening the blame for the Nazis' crimes to an entire culture -- whether that means Payerne, Switzerland, Europe, or all of humanity -- Chessex reminds us the Holocaust is a living concern, as opposed to something that is only the responsibility of thugs from the distant past.

A Jew Must Die by Jacques Chessex, translated by W. Donald Wilson
Bitter Lemon Press
ISBN: 1904738516
122 Pages