Siegfried
Harry Mulisch
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Siegfried

Harry Mulisch
Viking Press
Hardcover
180 pages
October 2003
rated 2 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Adolf Hitler, history's most hideous creature, has been probed, prodded, and psychoanalyzed by hundreds of authors. Everyone tries to find a reason "why" he was who he is, but in terms of that interrogative, there is no answer. The millions of words written about this syphillitic-ridden, gnome-like homunculus do more in perpetrating his memory than they do in penetrating his inner being.

And here, what began as an original and engaging takeoff on who this beast was, atrophies by book's end into little more than words filling pages, the author having lost momentum and focus and resorting to numbingly dull and confusing philosophical tirades in his attempt to answer the Big Question.

Dutch novelist Rudolf Herter has been invited to Vienna on a press junket in support of his current bestselling novel. He happens upon an elderly couple who reveal to him a long-held secret: Hitler had a son. Herter, real-life book author Harry Mulisch's alter character, is astonished. And the reader is astonished. The Falks, domestic servants working at Adolf's Bavarian retreat, tell him the tale, and these chapters are the strongest in the book; they combine thriller, psycho-drama, and the always engaging "What if?"

Herter returns to his hotel suite after spending the day with the married couple and listening to their confession, and the reader is poised, balanced on a thread in anticipation of what comes next. But what comes next is nothing. Herter makes some absurd connection between the birth of Hitler and the encroaching madness of the philosopher Nietzche. These chapters are captured in a sort of audio diary as the author recites his observations into a tape recorder.

He rambles in an obtuse, far-reaching, and confusing manner and the pages are simply impossible to read and comprehend.

"I have realized why Hitler is incomprehensible and will always remain so: because he was incomprehensibility in person - that is, in nonperson." What? "An old star changes through particular causes into a singularity surrounded by a black hole, but Hitler did not change at a certain moment in his life into that infernal horror - for example, through the violence of his revolting father or the grisly death from cancer of his mother, who was treated by a Jewish doctor, or a gas attack in the First World War, which left him temporarily blind. Other people have been through worse horrors and yet not become Hitlers."

And this is one of the simpler passages in this section. In concept, Mulisch hit upon an extraordinary idea - looking for the humanity in the German leader by giving him a son. But the idea was bigger than the author's imagination. He didn't know how to flesh out his skeletal schematic. As a book translated into English, perhaps it lost its fine-tuned originality. In any event, this will leave you with as many questions as answers.

In the end, our main character succumbs to the subject he has explored. And you're not even shocked when it happens, you knew it was coming. No one wants to know the ending of a book before you arrive there; that's the sign of an author who failed to deliver.



Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. Steven Rosen, 2004

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