"Die Walkure," second part of Ring cycle.
"Die Walkure," second part of Ring cycle. Photo by Courtesy Bayreuth Festival
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Anashim Tovim (Good People ) by Nir Baram. Am Oved (Hebrew ), 511 pages, NIS 88

Right from the first pages of "Good People," Nir Baram sets the stage for his book. His German hero's thoughts wander to people who admired Richard Wagner's "Die Gotterdammerung" ("Twilight of the Gods" ) and the latest play by Gerhart Hauptmann (apparently referring to one of his three last tragedies ).

Wagner is considered the artist most beloved by Hitler and the one whose work had the greatest influence on him; "Die Gotterdammerung" is the concluding part of the Ring tetralogy, whose overriding message is a penetrating statement regarding the horrible end that awaits people who turn their backs on morals and ethics. Hauptmann, winner of the 1912 Nobel Prize for Literature, was a darling of Hebrew critics in Palestine, but fell completely out of favor here after being adopted by the Nazis. Eventually he was chosen as one of six writers in the series of artists on the Nazis' "God's gift list," which was meant to identify Aryan genius at its best.

This simplistic beginning left me feeling dubious about the 500 pages awaiting me. It did not suggest, even by implication, the upheavals awaiting the heroes of the book. The crude brushstrokes delineating the novel's two main characters are a calling card that does not suit the rest of the book. From the time the heroes are introduced, however, Baram begins to sketch their intimate behavior, while marching down the paths of history with them, never in front of them. And the surprising plot managed to grab me as well.

But "Good People" is not just another historical novel that tells a fictional story within a realistic framework. Its true challenge does not necessarily lie in merging the two plots into one story, and not even in the trivial question regarding the relation between story and history - concepts that in some languages are defined by the same word (for example the German "Geschichte" or the Spanish "historia" ), and the degree to which a fictional plot is obligated to historical reality. The book's greatest achievement actually lies in the strata of its form, which arouse emotions borrowed from other artistic worlds as well as thoughts about personal and national identity.

The book has a rhythm that can be "heard" as well as read. Its first chapters are long, and their form ranges from that of a novel in the classical German style to one in the classical Russian style. Gradually they become shorter and soften into one style, the universal voice of Baram. Only someone who is well versed in pre-war Russian and German literature could orchestrate such a novel. It's strange that a young Israeli, whose people have major accounts to settle with the regimes of both Hitler and Stalin, has chosen these cultural tools in order to tell a story. Actually, perhaps it is natural that, in writing an allegory of moral corruption, the cruelty of human society and the folly of war, an Israeli chose to set his story in a world at which it is easy to get angry; using the wars in the Middle East as a framework would have diverted the emphasis from questions of morality to ones of justice.

Market research pioneer

There are two interwoven plots in "Good People," which begins on the eve of Kristallnacht, in the fall of 1938, and ends in June 1941, when German forces invaded Belarus.

One plot is devoted to Berliner Thomas Heiselberg, a fictional pioneer in the field of market research, while the heroine of the other is Alexandra (Sasha ) Andreivna Weissberg, a member of the Leningrad intelligentsia. The life stories of the two are symmetrical. Thomas and Sasha lose everything - one, initially, because of the departure of his American employers and the death of his mother, possibly from old age and illness, possibly from an attack of fright on Kristallnacht; the other because of the arrest of her "traitorous" parents, their exile to Siberia and the separation of her teenage twin brothers, who are both sent for reeducation. Thomas and Sasha remain bereft of those who had protected them, and both are lost souls who will seize onto the first important figure they encounter. Each of them will make his way back to the top by joining the new rulers. For Thomas the climb is necessary in order to save his ego, whereas Sasha is badly in need of a life raft to prevent her from sinking into the depths of depression.

Thomas joins the German Foreign Ministry, where he adapts market research models to deciphering foreign nations - first and foremost the Poles - for the purposes of the regime. What was once good for identifying sales potential is now being used as a means of dominating the ethnic groups subservient to the Nazis. The Poles are the objective, the Jews are the ones who will be harmed. While serving in Warsaw, Thomas is overcome by the megalomania that blinds him from time to time. This self-blinding paves his way to the abyss and from there to the realization of the damage that his plan has caused the Jews. The remorse of someone whom the Jews helped educate as a child and who were now the key to his behavior as an adult, causes his descent into madness.

The lonely Sasha is cared for by an old boyfriend, who has accumulated power in the Soviet system. With the assistance of her parents' bitter enemy, her high-ranking Communist husband, she is saved from the fate they have suffered and marched toward an even more terrible future. As a draftee of the NKVD (a Soviet secret police agency), she acts to punish her family's social circle. Like Thomas, who wants to rescue Jews, she too yearns to save souls - her twin brothers. But like Thomas, she realizes the magnitude of the disaster too little and too late. She is doomed to an agonizing Gotterdammerung.

How much does this fictional story owe to historical events? Baram has done everything possible to maintain a plot anchored in the reality of a Europe standing at the mouth of the volcano called World War II. He has neither falsified nor whitewashed, and has managed to avoid trying to ingratiate himself with Israeli readers. His Jewish characters are damaged, removed from their high positions in a revolting manner, and are even crushed in a short and horrifying lynch in the middle of the street. There is no mercy shown toward them, but Baram lets the reader know that he is angered by such behavior, which is unbefitting decent Europeans. The dissidents exist in the plot only to shed light on the work of officials of the tyrannical Soviet government. The characters are not sufficiently complex to allow the readers to develop empathy toward them.

What is even more impressive in Baram's observation of this dark chapter of European history is his willingness to work within the historical framework along with his creations, who don't know what their future holds. He allows them to remain with the limited knowledge of ordinary human beings, who live life from day to day. By doing so, he has waived the tempting option of turning Thomas and Sasha into cliched Mephistopheles types. After they have sold their souls to the devil, he gives them an opportunity to change their minds and to recall where their hearts lie. A moment too late the heroes discover that the new choice is no better than its predecessor. Instead of a life of horror, they have been doomed to devastation.

Thanks to his ability to abandon what we know about the future and to see the world through the eyes of those living in that time, Baram has succeeded in leaving the readers thoroughly connected to Thomas and Sasha. He avoids what could have ended up as writing characterized entirely by determinism and preaching, and has also given the readers a moment of deliberation together with the characters, who are dangling between life with a hollow soul and physical or emotional death.

Only in hindsight do we discover that the choice will not change their fate; the regime will crush them in any case. It's a pity that the moment of crushing that concludes the book is two chapters too many, two chapters that bring the novel back to the exclamation marks with which it began and spare the readers the oppressive sense of the horrifying question marks that emerged from the understanding that any choice is a bad one.

Like any good historical novel, "Good People" causes us to wonder about the ability of artists to draw accurate portraits of societies in distress. The inaccuracies that are inevitable in creative writing always make us fear that entire generations will be raised on the basis of misleading allegories rather than out of a knowledge of history for its own sake. It's enough to mention the uproar caused by Roberto Benigni's 1997 film "Life is Beautiful," because of its threat to the canonical memory of the Holocaust.

Baram has avoided this fate because his heroes do not play around with history; on the contrary, history engraves its impression on them. As opportunists trying to save their skins, they grab at any straw that will prevent them from sinking immediately. Even if they are not copied from the reality of life on the brink of the total collapse of old Europe, they serve as key figures for deciphering life under a totalitarian regime. This is not a history book, but it is possible to gain from it a good understanding of how millions of completely ordinary people behaved under the destructiveness of despotic regimes. We can also learn something from it about human nature and the ability to distinguish between good and evil; and even worse, about the delay in distinguishing between the crash lane and the way to avoid it.

Prof. Na'ama Sheffi, the head of the School of Communications at Sapir College, in Sderot, is a specialist in German history.