March 2012

Christopher Merkel


Another Place, Another Time

The first American edition of Corydon by André Gide appeared in 1950, at which time the author hoped that his dialogues on (male) homosexuality would be more easily received than they previously had been in France by an American audience familiar with the Kinsey Report on sexual behavior in the human male. That first American edition did, however, include an English translation of the preface to the third French edition of the same book, in which Gide, writing in November 1922, delivers a gallant defense of his defense (which is perhaps more enduringly compelling than the author's now quaintly antiquated arguments for his principal subject). "My friends insist that this is the kind of book that will do me the greatest harm," the preface begins, "[but] the indignation that Corydon will arouse does not shake my belief that what I say here ought to be said. Not that I consider one should say all one thinks, and say it whenever one chooses -- but this must be said, and now is the time." 

If only we all had such a definitive statement to make -- and could identify the definitive moment that demanded its saying. And if only Gide's humanism and the steps he took to guide the twentieth century of out the closet weren't tarnished by his regrettable anti-Semitism. Regrettably, maybe, the high ground is precarious. Who, anymore, for the almost certain rebukes of hypocrisy, would dare to try to take it? Some. Still. For better or for worse. 

In January and February of this year, judge Baltasar Garzón of Spain stood trial in the Spanish Supreme Court on three counts of misusing his judicial power. Garzón, a veritable celebrity in Spain, became internationally famous in the last decade of the twentieth century for his attempt to extradite former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet to Spain to stand trial for the alleged torture and deaths of Spanish citizens in Chile. He has been accused at different times of judicial bias by both the right and the left in his own country, but most recently garnered the ire of the extreme right with his investigations into certain state killings and "disappearances" executed by the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, which ended with Franco's death in 1975. His opponents in that case have argued that in opening his investigations Garzón flouted an amnesty law passed by the Spanish Parliament in 1977 -- an amnesty presumably intended to protect a fragile peace during the Spanish transition to democracy after the death of Franco. In opening his investigations (which ultimately went unpursued), Garzón certainly seems to have had something to say, but it would appear that maybe his timing wasn't right. 

It stands to presume, however, that maybe Garzón has done a service for his country and for the international community in demanding reconciliation with that particular facet of the past, even if no one (but the judge himself, ironically) were ever to stand trial to shoulder its official responsibility. If only Garzón hadn't been found guilty (in a ruling supported by progressive legal authorities who would presumably agree with Garzón in his position on investigating the crimes committed against humanity under Franco) of ordering illegal wiretaps to record conversations between prison inmates and their lawyers during the investigations surrounding a high profile corruption case. As the Spanish Supreme Court put it in Garzón's sentence, his actions in that case had the effect of permitting practices "found only in totalitarian regimes." Huh. That precarious high ground... the fragile peace... and the wonderfully literary ironies of the authors of reality. 

...And then, deus ex machina from beyond the grave, Roberto Bolaño to help us put the picture into beautifully literary perspective. 

Bolaño originally wrote The Third Reich in 1989 when the novel's setting of a late summer on the Catalonian Costa Brava might have been a slice of the author's own life, but its publication in Spanish in 2010 and its recent appearance in English translation by Natasha Wimmer seems uncannily timely. Although it isn't that The Third Reich supplies any answers or proffers any solutions for the myriad national and international problems surrounding the still evolving history of the previous century, its reappearance, well, appears as something of a reopening of that case -- just as the cases against judge Garzón are closing in the same country where Bolaño spent his career as a novelist in self-exile and where the story of the young German war games player whose diary comprises The Third Reich unfolds. 

Of course, the new English translation of The Third Reich wasn't anything conspiratorial. (Or maybe it was? You had time to think so if you read it in parts as the translation was published in the Paris Review over the course of 2011.) A politician and lawyer like Baltasar Garzón and struggling poet like Roberto Bolaño could hardly have led more disparate lives. So what about the Chile and the Spain connections? Even if farfetched conclusions might be easy to draw, sensationalism (or, possibly, idiocy) probably wouldn't present itself much better than alleged hypocrisy under the harsh light of official criticism (even if it might shine under a more flattering limelight). Still, that The Third Reich is at least in part about the Nazis is unavoidable. And if it's an easy jump to conclude that the book and its author would demand that readers think about those conveniently forgotten Nazis who spent their postwar years in Spain and in South America and wherever else, that conclusion isn't at all far fetched. 

And The Third Reich is much more than a political novel. In fact, it might be least of all a political novel. Udo Berger, Bolaño's protagonist, plays his war games and publishes articles about them. The title of Bolaño's novel takes its name from the name of the game for which Udo is supposed to be developing a new strategy while on holiday. Germans summer on the Spanish coast all the time (and they probably did back in 1989, too). And the layers of psychology that pervade Udo's diary extend well beyond the fact of a young German strategizing a simulation of Word War II. That's not even to mention the strange literary beauty of the ways in which Udo romanticizes and poeticizes his simulated movements and the personages represented by his playing pieces. But let a titan deal with the titanic psychology of Roberto Bolaño's prose. Here, let's focus on the game. 

From the explanatory note that prefaces the final installment of the serialization of The Third Reich in the Paris Review: "To pass his evenings, Udo begins a game of The Third Reich with El Quemado [the Burn Victim]. Udo hardly expects a challenge from the mysterious loner, but El Quemado turns out to be a natural." Although Third Reich is a game that the player playing the Axis should expect to lose, "Udo's pleased surprise gives way to suspicion as El Quemado (playing the side of the Allies) forces Udo's troops to retreat on the Eastern front." Given the situation, a dryly delivered description of the Autumn of 1940, during which Udo invades Spain from the south and stations German and Italian fleets in Madrid, is even more haunting than a passage in which Udo compares his favorite generals -- "If El Quemado had the slightest knowledge or appreciation of twentieth century German literature (and it's likely that he does!)" -- with a panoply of German authors ("I'd tell him that Manstein is like Günter Grass and that Rommel is like Celan..."). And (of course!), simply for the fact of his being a German, Udo isn't responsible for the course and the consequences of the Second World War, even if he is playing at the game of Third Reich... and even if El Quemado's drive toward victory appears increasingly fueled more by his desire to win the privilege of holding the loser accountable than the satisfaction of having outplayed his opponent. 

But then what? The Third Reich only raises the questions, the most important of which, as far as this game goes, requires readers to wonder: if it doesn't make sense to hold any one individual accountable, then what responsibility does each individual have in assuming accountability? To what extent can we continue to read and play the game without acknowledging the culpability of complicity? Directly, Roberto Bolaño has nothing to do with the investigations of Judge Baltasar Garzón. Garzón doesn't seem to have been looking to dig up Spanish ties to any Nazis. And indeed, for the sake of art for art's sake, there is also the need (or at least the desire) to question to what extent we should ask a literary work of art to be responsible to history and politics, no matter how embroiled both of those subjects might seem to be with each other. (And, as regards the legacy of Spain, its civil war and its resultant dictatorship, that topic has been brilliantly examined by Javier Cercas in Soldiers of Salamis, wherein the author investigates the forgotten literary legacy of Rafael Sánchez Mazas, whose works have been obscured by their author's participation in the Franco government of the 1930s.) 

I wish I could say that I had friends that would tell me that these are the kinds of speculations that could do me great harm, that maybe I should leave it to the Spanish to sort out their own history and the complexities of the politicization of their judiciary. Likely it's true that I have more who would roll their eyes at my grasping at straws. Unfortunately, maybe it's true that for those of us who haven't decidedly encountered those moments in which we're sure we need to say what we know needs to be said, there come those moments in which we take whatever seemingly grand opportunity presents itself just to say something. And maybe, just for my being able to explain myself by saying so, I shouldn't have dragged Roberto Bolaño into the mess. It's really not that I consider one should say all one thinks and say it whenever one chooses. But even if The Third Reich has no bearing on the further investigation of Spanish or European or world history, it shouldn't diminish the novel -- in any respect -- that it might raise the question of whether it could. 

"Though I don't think that El Quemado heard me I whispered that I was no Nazi, that none of it was my fault." And really, the weight of the Third Reich isn't Udo Berger's to bear. But at the risk of overstepping my authority and foully misinterpreting Bolaño's work, I wonder if The Third Reich doesn't historically implicate all of us inasmuch as it obliges us to open ourselves to questions of historical responsibility and reconciliation. The high ground may be precarious and the peace may be fragile, but even if the right time just comes as a coincidence maybe it's worth the risk of toppling ourselves just to say something. It was a national election year last year in Spain, and the streets are still full of political graffiti. And among the accusations that the socialists had enslaved the country and that their opposition represented a return to dictatorship, there was one message on one wall that stood out as remarkably if ironically positive. In thin, haphazard black letters, simply, "I'm guilty."