Saturday, March 09, 2013

Reading group: A Jew Must Die by Jacques Chessex

Once again other commitments have kept me from writing up the reading group report, and once again, I'm afraid, I have to rack my brains to remember the discussion.

The book was John's suggestion, a very short novella - perhaps really more of a long short story - set in April 1942 in the author's home town, the Swiss cattle-market town of Payerne, and recounting a true incident in which, as a 'birthday present' to Hitler, a group of Nazi locals (known to Chessex who in school sat next to the children of their leader, the thuggish Ischi) lure a Jewish cattle merchant into a stable and kill him with an iron bar.

My first memory is of John opening the discussion by saying that, short as the book was, it was certainly value for money, a statement with which I fully agreed, sensing others agreeing around me. He then went on to say what made it so: the spare prose, the calm, indeed stark way in which the author recounts the horrifying events, including the detailed process of the murder of Arthur Bloch which throws into ironic relief the town's previously homely tradition of butchery, a sobriety of narration which, as Jenny would say later, made the events somehow even more horrifying; the way the beauty of the surrounding countryside is contrasted with the moral ugliness at the heart of the town, and the way, especially, that the book anatomises the evil of idealism: the fact that the perpetrators saw their crime as an act of glory and wanted to be found out - Ischi walking towards the arresting policemen as if towards triumph and believing that once the Nazis took over Switzerland their action would make them heroes.

My next and main memory is of being most surprised, even shocked, to discover that Mark didn't think much of the book at all, and that to some extent he was backed up by Doug. Mark said it had left him absolutely cold, and he couldn't understand why it has had such a great critical reception. One thing he strongly felt was that it was banal and unoriginal. The book makes vividly clear that the main 'justification' for the murder - apart from the perpetrators' personal desire for political advancement - is the historic European resentment of the success of Jews in the professions and in business (Arthur Bloch being a supreme bourgeois example), now given impetus by Hitler's anti-Jewish campaign taking place beyond the Swiss mountains. Mark said, but we know that this is why there was general resentment of Jews, and he compared the book to the film Conspiracy in which the Nazi party plot their extermination campaign without ever referring to the imagined Jewish Conspiracy to dominate, but simply taking it for granted, which Mark found much more chilling. I was too stunned to gather my thoughts and say what I have thought since: that throughout history anti-Semitic propaganda set out precisely to deny the Jews any right to bourgeois or professional success by presenting them as dirty and subhuman, and inevitably (surely) in the process erasing or at least diminishing in many non-Jewish minds concepts of the Jew as bourgeois and professional. In addition, it seems to me that the shock I often still hear expressed about the middle-class and professional status of so many of those sent to the death camps implies that not everyone has an understanding that the notion of a Jewish Conspiracy fuelled European anti-Semitism and Hitler's Final Solution. Indeed, Trevor proved this by wondering suddenly during the discussion why, out of all the racism there is and has been in the world, Jews should have been so subject to such a sustained concerted campaign, and had to be reminded by Mark of the historical roots, the occupation of money handling falling to Jews in a time when such an activity was forbidden to Christians.

The book's revisiting of this historic and wartime prejudice is therefore to me salutary:
 A Jew has a bank account and a big belly - nothing surprising in that... The Jew grown fat from robbing us with his banks, pawnbroking and dealing in the cattle and horses he sells to our army. Our army!
and I find moving the contrasting depiction of Arthur Bloch as a typical yet exemplary and very human Swiss cattle trader:
With the point of his stick he presses on the flank of one of the animals from Villaz-Saint-Pierre, reaches out a hand, moves back to feel its haunch and gently strokes its neck... Arthur Bloch is deliberate, never peremptory or imperious. Unruffled and perspicacious, he displays the same wise caution as the local farmers. Rubbing shoulders with them, despite his difference he has long felt at one with them, that they esteem and respect him.
All I could think to say to Mark at the time was that just because we know things doesn't mean that they can't be anatomised in novels, but Mark retorted that in any case, and above all, the book didn't move him. Here Doug came in and said that for most of the book he found the same. I now remembered, and John reminded me, that while I was reading the book I had also commented that it wasn't moving - until, that is, I got to the end, to a years-later chance encounter between the author and the unrepentant pastor whose Nazi agitation was central to the plot, which I found devastating, and finally to Arthur Bloch's funeral: by then I was in floods of tears. Doug conceded that he too found the end moving, but he said it was hard to see why, with which I couldn't help but agree, as the prose at the end is rather declamatory.

There is probably a clue in the manipulation of viewpoint in the novel, which John commented on, saying he thought it brilliantly done. While adopting to begin with an omniscient third person and looking down on the town from an omniscient visual perspective, the book segues subtly into the viewpoint of the Nazi thugs, as in the first quotation above. Finally, we get the angry, grieving years-later viewpoint of the author confronted by the pastor's continuing hatred, and looking back on the whole affair. It is the contrast between the earlier cool anatomisation of the situation and the author's final outpouring that is so devastating. As John pointed out, far from being unoriginal, the book is special in being written by someone who was at the time embedded in anti-Semitic Swiss society. At one point Jenny commented that the book is about shame.

In response to Mark's objection, Ann also pointed out that the book is about far more than the single incident of the Nazi murder of one man by a handful of thugs in a single rural Swiss town, but (I think she said) wider issues of racism and prejudice and the way that the poison of seemingly distant events can filter into the smallest communities and make all of us culpable.

People commented on the title of the translation, A Jew Must Die. Jenny said she had been reading the book on the bus and it had suddenly occurred to her how it might look, and had felt the need to cover it up. It was generally agreed that the original French title Un Juif pour l'example (A Jew as an Example) was a more apt title for the book, although I can't help thinking that the English title is a clever way of endorsing, indeed enacting, the book's message of our culpability.

[EDITED IN: Ann has reminded me that one comment we made at the end of the evening was that the shortest book we have ever discussed had given rise to one of our longest discussions.]

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

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