Book review: The Origin of Violence

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A multi-layered French novel looking back at complicity with the Third Reich also explores the seductive power of darkness

FABRICE Humbert is a French novelist, born in 1967. He belongs, you might say, to an unhistorical generation. The turmoil and anguish of mid-20th century Europe have given way to peace and prosperity.

Yet the memory nags at him; his novel begins with the fall of the rebel angel, Lucifer who becomes Satan. His narrator, a teacher, like the author, at a Franco-German lyceé on the outskirts of Paris, takes a school party to Weimar, Goethe’s city, the cradle of German culture, a place that breathes of high civilisation. Yet only eight kilometres outside Weimar is the concentration camp, Buchenwald, where 53,000 people died or were murdered, even though it was not, like Auschwitz, a camp devoted to extermination.

Making the obligatory visit to Buchenwald, he finds his attention caught by one photograph in the camp museum. It records, he learns later, the visit of the Reichsfuerher Himmler, but it is a prisoner in the background, just behind one of the camp doctors, Dr Erich Wagner, who startles him by his remarkable resemblance to his own father.

Naturally, he investigates, despite his father’s attempt to warn him off when he mentions the photograph to him, and learns the man in the photograph was a French Jew called David Wagner, who died – perhaps murdered – in Buchenwald in 1942.

The narrator’s family is a rich, cohesive clan, originally from the haute-bourgeoisie of Normandy, his grandfather, Marcel Fabre, a senior civil servant, now retired, after serving as a prefect.

The father, Adrien Fabre, bears no resemblance to the rest of the Fabres, and leads a detached and solitary life, never attending family gatherings. So the novel is first a quest, an investigation of family history, which will throw up one disturbing question: who arranged for the arrest and detention of David Wagner, something that preceded the mass deportations of Jews from France?

The second quest is the narrator’s attempt to discover how David Wagner lived and died in the camp, and this leads to an examination of the inescapable question: how was it that a highly civilised nation succumbed to Hitler and made a reality of the hell that artists such as Dante and Hieronymus Bosch had imagined so vividly?

“The more I think about history,” the narrator writes, “the more I am aware of the irrational, of the tribal, savage forces of our societies, as though dark, secret urges are constantly waiting for some tear in the social fabric to explode. Hitler, no doubt unconsciously, discovered that tear.”

On a visit to Berlin the narrator meets a girl, Sophie, and falls in love. He learns her grandfather was an honourable man who joined the Nazi Party before Hitler came to power. Later, disillusioned, he sought death on the Eastern Front. Though friendly with some of the July 1944 plotters, his idea of patriotism held him back from joining them. He hadn’t realised, the narrator thinks, that the party had swallowed up the country.

This is a highly intelligent and moving novel, dealing with a huge theme with perceptive sympathy. It is not merely about “the origin of violence” as the title suggests, but about its attractiveness. The novel is leisurely and discursive, all the better for the many reflective and analytical passages, which include, for instance, an account of the time the narrator spent teaching in what we would call sink schools in the banlieues of Paris, where violence and acts of cruelty were the daily norm.

He remembers for instance, a case of bullying, made more disturbing because “the guilty parties were likeable enough, contributing in class, always smiling, sometimes joking with me after lessons – before going to beat up their classmate. And I liked them better than I liked him who, though he was a mediocre pupil, was arrogant and very withdrawn”. Part of the horror was that “his friends were his torturers, the only people in his class he ever talked to”. There is always a bond between the oppressor and the oppressed, the torturer and victim.

Humbert’s novel has a strong plot, a compelling narrative with twists and turns, and a strong, surprising conclusion. It is, among other things, a crime novel, and a very good one.

Like all serious crime novels it deals with the pathology of the human condition, and its theme is moral and intellectual corruption.

Yet what gives this novel its peculiar distinction is, first, the quality of its speculation and argument, and second its disturbing recognition of how easily people may respond to the attraction of evil and destruction, while others, “pale, faceless men’’ – bureaucrats – “who bring order and misery to a nation” may deal out death with a stroke of the pen and experience no guilt.

This is a novel of rare scope, substance and strength. The translation by Frank Wynne reads well and does justice to the remarkable original.

• The Origin of Violence by Fabrice Humbert. Serpent’s Tail, 295pp, £14.99