Book Review

The Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin

pacy thriller; terrible bookstore; hot summer heat

spoilers contained below, but only as many spoilers as i had before reading and it didn’t ruin the experience for me?

I’ve never seen the 1978 movie The Boys from Brazil, but I’m aware that it’s meant to be a fun, of-its-time romp about clones of Adolf Hitler. Feeling like I needed a trashy thriller to help pass the terrible time of my terrible life, I purchased this paperback at the same time as I purchased Tales from Earthsea, i.e. from what is undoubtedly the worst bookshop I have ever visited in the UK.

It was maybe the worst bookshop I’ve ever visited in Europe. Only the second worst bookshop I’ve visited in the world. And I’ve travelled a reasonable amount, and everywhere I go – even when I cannot read the local language well or at all – I check out the bookstore scene. I’ve been to bookstores in the Balkans, in Eastern Europe, all over Southern Canada & the parts of the US I’ve visited, in Scandinavia, all over Western Europe, in Istanbul and Northern Africa and the second worst bookshop of them all happens to exist somewhere in this “great” city that prides itself on its international position as a cultural hub.

One of the absolute worst bookshops in the entire world – one of the worst book-buying experiences available globally – is here in London.

It’s been weeks since I was there, but I still think about it most days and shake my head in utter fucking contempt.

When I’m in that part of the city again – and I’m sure I will be, sooner or later, it’s a part of the city that I like – I will have to ensure I do not walk on the street where this terrible bookshop is located, as I do not want to have to break the habits of a lifetime and not enter a bookshop I walk past and nor do I want a repeat of the faith-destroying experience I had on that occasion.

Maybe they’ll have tidied up, alphabetised and sorted the books out?

Maybe they’d just inherited an entire other shop’s worth of stock and were in the process of getting it organised on the day I happened to be there?

No, this obviously wasn’t the case. The staff in that bookshop should have fucking apologised, to me, and to all of the other customers who entered (most left without buying anything), because they have created the second worst book-buying experience available – in my experience – anywhere in the world.

I’ve been to bookshops in some real fucking shitholes, but almost always they are presented and organised with care, consideration and an engagement and understanding of content.

Not this place, though.

The current owners/managers of that shop should have their licence revoked.

If environmental health investigated a restaurant that was failing in its ability to do basic things required to serve food they would close it down.

That book shop is doing the equivalent of not washing plates, not using refrigeration, not taking the litter out at the end of the day.

If there was a book-selling guild, they would be excommunicated from it.

I cannot stress how absolutely livid I am that this shop is allowed to exist in its current form. DM me if you want to know where it is!

///

Sorry.

THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL

All I knew going into this novel was the “clones of Hitler” thing, and given that the characters investigating the mysterious plot that the fictionalised genuine (including at time of writing) “Nazi-on-the lam in South America” Josef Mengele is ficticiously plotting don’t realise that he’s created almost a hundred clones of Adolf Hitler until around 3/4 of the way through the novel, you might think I found this plot-based thriller underwhelming, given I knew the major twist.

But, surprisingly, no!

In spite of me knowing the broad strokes of the scheme being hatched by Josef “the Angel of Death” Mengele, the way in which Ira Levin (also responsible for the novels Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives) ratchets up the tension and the excitement throughout The Boys From Brazil means that it remains – as all thrillers should – thrilling, right up until the denouement.

It’s often fun to read a thriller like this where all of the heroes and villains are in the final third of life – everyone’s old, everyone’s over the hill, everyone’s lost the positions of power and control they had – and felt they deserved – when younger, and both Mengele and his enemy, the no-longer-fashionable Nazi-hunter Yakov Liebermann (a fictionalised version of Simon Wiesenthal) cause problems for themselves through their bitterness and distrust of younger colleagues who they deem to be rivals. 

It’s very strange to read a novel in which the villain is not only a real person, but the villain is a real person who committed horrific atrocities and was able to successfully evade capture and retribution for his actions.

The novel splits itself pretty much 50/50 between Mengele as he plans and begins to execute his crop of creating two coachloads of mini-Hitlers, and Liebermann as he tries to a) work out what’s going on, and then b) stop it.

What this means is that not only is Levin sticking his reader slap bang into the consciousness and the perspective of a sinister, evil, bioengineering war criminal Nazi, he’s sticking his reader slap bang into the consciousness and perspective of a very real man, and is giving him skills, abilities, knowledge and intelligence far beyond what he had irl. I mean, I’m presuming the real Mengele didn’t engineer a hundred clones of Hitler before he died in 1979, but who knows, maybe he did? 

There’s something a little discomforting, I think, being a reader placed in this position, and though (obviously) Mengele is evil and violent and manipulative and racist and cruel and vicious, he’s also “the smartest guy in the room” for the entirety of the book until the very moment when, well (no further spoilers) he isn’t.

Mengele was a real person, a horrible person who did unspeakably evil torture and violence as part of a state-run genocide, and by giving him the smarts and the wiliness Levin does, he makes him more impressive than he was. Though, of course, it isn’t kind to him, his ideas or his attitudes, it is flattering toward his intellect, which is the kind of thing that people like that would probably care more about, right?

Did Mengele ever get a copy of Levin’s book?

I dunno, I’ll go into a Wikipedia hole shortly and see what I can discover, but I can’t imagine – other than the lack of a totally perfect victory at the end – he probably wouldn’t hate this. As (hardly a spoiler) the “good guys” don’t arrange a massacre of 90-something child clones at the end of the book, Mengele’s aim of re-releasing the genetic materials that composed Hitler into the world is a complete success!

There’s a positive note at the end, as everyone celebrates Mengele’s fictional death, and characters discuss how people are wiser nowadays, with mass media and education meaning that even if a Hitler figure existed, people would be too smart to fall for fascism again.

On that, Levin was woefully woefully optimistic.

It’s an excellent thriller, but is it an acceptable book?

I was planning on waxing lyrical about it, but as soon as I stopped reading it, after reading through it fast, I noticed that there was a massive swastika on the front, a massive swastika on the back and a small swastika on the spine, and suddenly I didn’t feel so comfortable to praise this book after all…

but, yeah, it’s an excellent trashy thriller… but it’s also definitely trash….

July 18th, 2022, london heatwave bebbe

the uncensored cover

1 comment on “The Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin

  1. Pingback: The Other Wind by Ursula Le Guin – Triumph Of The Now

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