Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 23, 2016

Good People, by Nir Baram, translated by Jeffrey Green #BookReview

Good PeopleYesterday at the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival, I asked Nir Baram the wrong question about his stunning novel Good People.  I asked him if he meant us to be wary of contemporary commercial entities who are complicit in marketing government messages, but I should have asked him, did he mean for us to be wary of ourselves.

That’s because, in the course of teasing out the reasons why authors should be writing fiction about the Holocaust, Baram shared a shaming statistic.  He said that some people are interested in asking themselves the question, what would I have done in that situation.  But the answer is already known: 89% of people collaborated.  Fiction is a useful way of exploring the motivations of characters who represent that overwhelming majority, if we wish to understand why.

The title of the novel is not entirely ironic.  The novel follows the hopes and ambitions of two ordinary people confronting the apparatus of totalitarian regimes, and the author makes the reader confront the reality of ‘goodness’ when it’s tested.  Thomas Heiselberg is in Nazi Berlin and Sasha Weissberg is in Stalin’s Leningrad.  The story begins in 1938 when the world is on the cusp of war and the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact is yet to be signed.  Both characters start out in naïveté, thinking that they can outwit the State, neither understanding that they are out of their depth.

Heiselberg suffers from mood swings, and has been in analysis with his Jewish psychoanalyst Erika Gelber for a long time.  He’s not a bad man, though he is privately arrogant, dismissive of others, and always scheming to outsmart others in his orbit.  He has grand ambitions to build a business empire all over Europe and eventually the world.  At the time the story gets going he’s well on the way, muscling into the Berlin branch of the American advertising company Milton, soon to become a chain of four with other branches in Paris, Rome and his pet project, Warsaw.

His business is in the analysis of national characteristics, which are then used to tailor marketing strategies for goods and services.  The Nazis, preparing their strategies not just for war but for domination of their subject peoples afterwards, are interested in his skills.  Although Thomas has happily done business with Jewish people, he soon realises that such connections might imperil his opportunities.  His association with Erika is particularly suspect because the Nazis are paranoid about Jews influencing national attitudes and behaviours through Freudian psychoanalysis.  At this time it seems as if Thomas’s anti-Semitism is somewhat theoretical.  In practice, he admires the craftsmanship of his tailor, and he likes (maybe loves) Erika and he does what he can to help her get out of Germany although it’s too little, too late.

Baram leaves it to his readers to recognise that the anti-Semitism of tolerating Aryanisation was what enabled it to proceed towards its genocidal conclusion.  Thomas knows about depriving Jews of their assets, excluding them from public places and banning them from certain occupations long before he witnesses any violence.  But he views this through the prism of his own ambitions and inter-office politics.  Alert to proceedings by his rivals within the company, Thomas works out that under cover of doing market research for Dresdener [a major Jewish bank] – and probably on a fat commission – Milton was messing with one of those deals to buy Jewish property at ridiculous prices. (p. 78)  He’s not perturbed by the moral issues – he’s peeved because they have excluded him; he congratulates himself on detecting what they are up to without him.  So too, on Kristallnacht, when he gets home to witness the savage murder of his mother’s friend Frau Stein at the hands of the Brownshirts, he puts this down to his personal rivalry with Hermann Kreizinger, a former classmate.  There is always a way for Thomas to rationalise away what he sees and is fully aware of, (but his unruly subconscious doesn’t let him get away with it entirely).

In Leningrad, Sasha’s family hosts a literary circle which has come to the attention of the authorities.  They have arrested the poet Nadyezhda Petrovna (who BTW has the same name as one of the Romanovs who escaped) and they want the rest of the dissidents.  Sasha knows that one of the circle is the informer, but she isn’t sure which one it is.  Recognising their peril she cooperates with an admirer since schooldays, Maxim Podolsky, an agent for the NKVD who has his own agenda .  He needs her to help get an arrest because his own family has a dubious history – and she needs him because she thinks he can help her to protect her own parents and twin brothers.

At school when they were asked to bring a quotation that described who they were Maxim (her husband-to-be) quotes Mephistopheles from Goethe’s Faust:

I am part of that force which would
Do evil evermore, and yet creates the good. (p.56)

So she knew … or should have known.  But she is very young…

‘Your mum is a smart woman,’ said Podolsky.  They stepped back down the path, leaving the circle of white light, and Sasha felt as if she had escaped from a trap.

‘I’ve already heard that tonight.’

‘Very smart,’ Podolsky repeated.  ‘To the best of my understanding, she set up the little meeting in your house this evening so that our informer would lead us to the connection between Nadyezhda Petrovna and Bliumkin, and from there to the Trotskyites.  An excellent trick.  You should have seen the report that was handed to us.

‘Osip Borisovich?’ she asked weakly.  Sometimes even treachery that you expect can be painful.

He ignored her.  ‘The agents here were very excited.  Reznikov from the second department was shouting like a madman.’  Podolsky pulled a face and pranced around her.  ‘Give me those traitors! Let me get my hands on them!’

Sasha shuddered.  (p.57)

And so do we, the readers of this passage…

Sasha reinvents herself as part of the deal, putting her own literary talents to use by helping the accused to write their confessions (since they have no idea what they are supposed to be guilty of).  The NKVD thinks she’s terrific.  She struts about in smart clothes, leaving a trail of anxiety behind her, almost untouchable except for an act of vengeance that leaves her scarred in more ways than one.

Things unravel, of course.  Just as her parents spent a nerve-wracking week waiting for the axe to fall, Sasha waits for a downfall that she knows is inevitable.  Eventually, like Thomas, she ends up being sidelined to Brest on the Polish border where their respective bosses have dreamed up a bizarre pageant to celebrate Russian-German friendship.  Anyone who knows their history knows the endgame.

Good People is a taut, compelling novel that’s hard to put down.  Remarkably, it lures the reader into feeling some sense of sympathy for these perpetrators of evil.  It’s the kind of book I like because it doesn’t let the reader off the hook: it does what the author claimed for it in the session at the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival… He said he liked Aharon Appelfeld’s novels, because they never set foot inside the camps, and they avoid the pornography of brutality, but they add to the act of remembering by doing things differently.  (See, for example, my review of Blooms of Darkness).  By creating an imaginary situation, Baram also refreshes the discourse away from clichés and stereotypes.  It shows how people who were indifferent to politics can be sucked into its grasp.  It’s a warning against letting the easy-going centre of politics become so weak that it allows the extremes within.

Is that what we are about to confront in America?

Author: Nir Baram
Title: Good People
Translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey Green
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2016
ISBN: 9781925240955
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available from Fishpond: Good People
Or direct from Text where you can also buy it as an eBook.


Responses

  1. The issue of collaboration was explored by Vasily Grossman in Life and Fate and Anatoli Rybakov in Fear other books. The people they depict are far from evil, but they go along to get along.

    • Yes, I’d agree about Life and Fate but I haven’t read Rybakov yet. I’ve got Children of the Arbat which I really must read soon…

  2. You ask excellent questions about the role of (recent) historical novels; the complicity of ordinary people in evil (think Australian concentration camps for ‘illegal’ immigrants); and the re-rise of the right. Like many people, I am wary of the re-writing of history around the Holocaust, but this author makes good arguments for the approach he has taken. An excellent review!

    In passing, I haven’t received these posts in my email yet. I’ll try and make sure I haven’t somehow switched you off.

    • Yes, indeed Bill, Juchau talked about contemporary resonances with her novel about the DP camps. Jewish people have been prominent among critics of asylum seeker policies; they tend to feel strongly about it. I suspect that one way or another, most of the audience I sat among would not have been there had there not been asylum available in the 1930s.

  3. […] books I read last year.  His novel Good People (2016, Text Publishing, first published in 2010, see my review), was an exploration of the reasons why otherwise good people in totalitarian regimes end up […]


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