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Hitler: the intimacy of evil

In the end, Norman Mailer's quest for evil's source adds little to the modern perception that its origins are hideously personal.
Published Feb. 4, 2007|Updated Feb. 4, 2007

Norman Mailer has made a career of putting up his dukes, in life and in literature. His new novel, The Castle in the Forest, should have been a contender.

The book's fictional version of the family history and childhood of Adolf Hitler came about, Mailer has said, because he has been "obsessed with Hitler since my childhood." Mailer's Jewish heritage and his World War II military service gave him motive to explore the origins of the enormous evil perpetrated by the Nazi dictator.

Throughout his long and prolific writing life, Mailer has tackled characters, fictional and real, beyond the realm of ordinary experience. And no one has ever accused him of lacking the ego to take on big subjects: He has written about Jesus Christ and Marilyn Monroe, the CIA and the '60s antiwar movement.

For this one, he has done his homework: The Castle in the Forest has more than six pages of bibliography. Not cited, though, is the book that came most often to mind, Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which she coined that chilling phrase "the banality of evil." Her thesis was that the Holocaust was carried out not by mad fanatics, but by ordinary people who believed their actions were normal because their leaders told them so.

Mailer is taking on the supreme leader, the root of that evil. Yet The Castle in the Forest renders Hitler as utterly banal, as well. Is there then no human source of that evil? Or has Mailer flinched from its face?

His imagined version of the Hitler family history is certainly out of the ordinary in its mind-boggling tendency toward incest (based on rumors that have been around since Hitler's heyday). The short version of the ingrown family tree: Hitler's paternal grandparents were cousins; Hitler's father, Alois, impregnated his half sister and then married the daughter who was the result, and that father-daughter union produced Hitler.

But, despite its serious ick factor, all that incest does not seem to lead to anything but the most ordinary family life in the Hitler household. Alois is a feckless horndog as a young man and a pompous domestic tyrant as an older one, but he is more than anything a self-absorbed, status-conscious, controlling bureaucrat, and often a colossal bore.

If there is anything about Alois that suggests what his son will become, it's his breathtaking ability to rationalize away his bad acts. He may beat his sons bloody and marry his daughter, but he remains utterly convinced he is a solid citizen because he supports his family and goes to the right men's clubs.

Mailer devotes so many pages to Alois' life (and his obsession with beekeeping) that it takes about two-thirds of the book to really get around to Adi, as Adolf Hitler is called in childhood. As a result, he's not nearly as fully imagined a character, and what we do learn of him is again pretty ordinary: He bullies his younger brother, is jealous of his older one, fears and adores his father, is himself adored by his mother, and spends much of his adolescence masturbating or falling into surly rages. He's a brat, but it's difficult to picture the leap from there to Buchenwald.

Unless you buy the devil defense. The book is narrated by someone named Dieter, who first identifies himself as an SS officer but soon reveals he is a literal (if minor) devil, the young Hitler his most important "client."

But even this source of evil is banal. Dieter can be a witty devil, and sometimes a windy one (he's a lot like Alois), but he's not the least bit frightening. In fact, he's kind of a wimp. He's sentimental about little kids and downright prissy about some kinds of sex, and his most insulting name for God is the childish "Dummkopf."

Even Dieter admits the young Hitler is not all that promising a client. But he sticks with the job because of an event to which he credits Hitler's singular potential for wickedness: Because of some loophole created by all that incestuous history, Satan was able to be present at the moment of his conception.

In other words, the devil makes him do it.

It seems at first too facile, at second thought too dreadful: If that's the cause, then was Hitler not responsible for his crimes?

No one can finally and fully explain evil, of course, particularly on the scale that Hitler committed it.

But Mailer himself has gazed into that heart of darkness to far greater effect and enlightenment before. In perhaps his last great book, Harlot's Ghost, he created a chilling epic about the inner workings of the CIA, probing the arid souls of characters far more sinister than the Hitler he paints here.

And in his astonishing nonfiction portrait of murderer Gary Gilmore, The Executioner's Song, he came much closer to looking the devil in the eye.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or bancroft@sptimes.com.

THE BOOK

The Castle in the Forest

By Norman Mailer

Random House, 477 pages, $26.95

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