Book Review

the disappearance of Joseph Mengele by Olivier Guez

reading another novel about nazis, but this is not a romp

cw: genocide, violence, mental illness, fascism

Several years ago, I read and thoroughly enjoyed Andrew Hankinson’s second person non fiction novel about a mentally ill former bouncer who – after repeated calls for help that were ignored by England’s most overrated institution (the NHS – overrated due to its deliberate destruction following a decade and a half of managed destruction and austerity, enacted against a simultaneous campaign to raise expectations about the services provided by the institution so as to consistently and constantly undermine them and thus raise support for privatised healthcare) – murdered two people, blinded a police officer (who later killed themself), then shot himself in the head with a lead fishing weight while – basically – on live TV, You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat], and though tonally this freshly translated novel (originally published in French as La Disparitition de Josef Mengele in 2017) about the war criminal Joseph Mengele reminded me of that text, Moat was – and is – a far more sympathetic figure than Mengele, who even as Olivier Guez depicts his physical and psychological decline in increasingly uncomfortable settings in South America, never becomes an antihero, a symbol, a myth: Guez is able to both realistically depict an ageing, justifiably paranoid, person as they – bleakly successfully – just about manage to outpace meaningful consequences for actions for which they feel no remorse, without ever, at any moment, slipping a sense of pity, a sense of sympathy, a sense of empathy, for this evil figure.

Raoul Moat was failed by a system that cornered him to the point where violence was the inevitable avenue for his pain and distress, and though he commited crude, cruel, unjustifiable actions, he did this because there was no opportunity for him to do anything else. Joseph Mengele, by contrast – and like Adolf Eichmann (see Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil) – exploited and thrived within a complicit and corrupted system that not only allowed but rewarded his violence, his amorality, his cruelty, his racism, his hatred and his sinister politics and cod-scientific justifications for torture.

It is rare to read a novel where even its most evil protagonist doesn’t become somewhat humanised by the mere focus of a couple of hundred pages of prose.

Guez (as translated by Georgia de Chamberet) is able to depict Mengele’s fear and pain and physical decline without at any point forgetting what he has done. Similarly, The Disappearance of Joseph Mengele is not Inglorious Basterds type exploitation: this novel doesn’t relish or revel in Mengele’s impotence, his heart attack, his stroke, the withering of his social life, the loss of the riches he built for himself in Peronist Argentina (which was very friendly towards fleeing Nazis), as none of these things are meaningful consequences for what Mengele did.

Mengele was a horrible, horrible, fucking evil person, and Guez is serious enough to understand that the pretty standard effects of ageing do not represent a just punishment for crimes against humanity: there is no sense that Guez even fleetingly implies that not being able to get an erection in your late 60s one time is just desserts for the horrors Mengele committed; there is no sense that justice has been served by what happened to the Nazi, because there wasn’t.

Mengele may not have had the later life that he felt he deserved or felt he had been promised by Hitlerian fascism, but, again, this isn’t Inglorious Basterds, this is narrative nonfiction, this is novelised history: in real life, very few people do face proportionate reward or response for their actions. This is a novel that absolutely does not simplify, does not make a reader feel pity or empathy, which in itself marks it as a success.

As the text goes on, its internal politics become clearer, as both Mengele – in creepy agreement with the authorial voice and presumed reader – react to the rehabilitation of former Nazis.

Mengele sees the soldiers and the bureaucrats and the politicians who worked deeply and proudly within the Nazi establishment who continus to work for German – and international – institutions in the decades following, as traitors to the Third Reich, he sees the denial of knowledge of the Holocaust, he sees claims of ignorance and shame, of progressive politics and he rails against them: for decades he is supported by his family’s business, which continued operating using his fucking name until about 20 years ago; for decades he is hidden by former Nazis working for the German police and German diplomatic service and German businesses who, in private, want to support and deify this evil man, though in public claim and promote “denazification”. As the text and the decades go on, too, the CIA start hiring former Nazis to help them with anti-communist warfare and, until his generation finally start to retire from the workforce in the late seventies and eighties, there is an embedded resistance in much of Europe to actually confront and acknowledge its own past and its overall complicity in the genocide that happened. And now, decades on from that, the far right is slowly rising again, using the same bullshit reactionary lies that it used a hundred years ago.

People’s memories are short.

We are not taught critical thinking and analysis in schools; there are no more public intellectuals; there is only the proliferation of mindless escapist media, all designed to stop people thinking and stop people from understanding the realities of the society we live in, which is full of people ripe for radicalisation and ripe to be radicalised by lies, because they – we – do not understand enough about the world to be strong against it.

Genocide will happen again.

Dehumanisation of climate refugees has already begun, and that is where this inevitably will lead.

The death penalty will return soon enough in “civilised” countries (remember it’s never been federally banned in the fucking united states!!!!), and then the crimes for which this is the punishment will decrease in their severity, until the point where unsanctioned border crossing (and maybe even sanctioned border crossing if the powerful don’t like the way you look or think) will be greeted with a swift execution.

We are on our way back to a world where concentration camps are normal – they exist in the UK, in the US, in the EU, and there is a very, very, very, short journey from accepting that these “temporary” camps are actually permanent, to accepting that these permanent camps are labour camps, to accepting that these labour camps should not provide food and lodgings to those unable to work, to accepting that those unable to work – however and whoever that is defined to be – should be executed due to “pragmatism”, due to it being considered more “humane” to offer death than incarceration without end.

It is a short journey, and it is a journey we as a “society” ($0¢i€t¥) are on.

There is no hope to be found in The Disappearance of Joseph Mengele, there is only the sick and sickening blueprint of what has happened before and what may – will – happen again. When bitter old racists are the people with the power of the state in their control – and right now, in much of the world they are – there is nothing but danger ahead.

We are where we are, and we are headed towards a future where the Joseph Mengeles and Adolf Eichmanns will be rewarded again, in fact we’re probably already there.

The next Mengele is probably already at med school and angry about the international students getting better marks than him; the next Eichmann is probably already working in logistics and watching anti-immigrant propaganda on YouTube sat on the office toilet as he shits out his nutrient free palm oil laced meals.

If we forget the past, we are doomed to repeat it, they say.

People, even evil fucking people, get old and die, but ideas – even the most heinous, the most ignorant, the most cruel and sinister and vile – can be kept young and kept alive when widespread political, historical and cultural literacy is denied.

We have forgotten the past. These people were not monsters, were not evil geniuses (see The Boys From Brazil), they were men: dickhead, piece of shit men whose worst desires and instincts and ideas were given the space to flourish.

This is a powerful, haunting novel, and it’s that latter because it feels bleakly relevant to today, and if we’d learnt the lessons of the 20th century, a novel like this wouldn’t feel fucking relevant at all.

A great read, a serious read, and available now from Verso Books.

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