Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 13, 2017

Max, by Sarah Cohen-Scali, translated by Penny Hueston

Text Publishing sent me this book last year, but it’s taken me ages to get to it because I had misgivings about it.  Max purports to be the narration of a child born under the Nazi Lebensborn program, which aimed to breed perfect specimens of the Aryan race.  The book has been awarded a number of prestigious French prizes including the Prix Sorcières, but I had an uneasy feeling about its distasteful subject matter.

It’s not that I think there are no-go areas for writing fiction, but I do think that authors ought to tread very carefully when fictionalising sensitive topics.  The Lebensborn (now in their sixties) are – through no fault of their own – biologically a product of racist eugenics, and socially, educated in Nazi ideology for a significant formative period of their lives.  As individual people they deserve to be treated and judged on their own merits, but as a group they represent a loathsome ambition. Humanising them in fiction needs to be handled with delicacy, because a sympathetic portrayal runs the risk of validating the ideology that spawned them.

The press release heightened my unease:

This rewarding and thought-provoking novel is captivating, chilling and surprisingly tender.

And

“I hope that as I did, you will be able to feel indulgent towards Max’s flaws, and that you will love him, defend him, and adopt this orphan of evil.” (Sarah Cohen- Scali)

Well, I took Max to Woodend with me, and I read it.  And found my sense of unease justified.  The narration by Max did not arouse any feelings of tenderness: this character as concocted by Cohen-Scali is a pitiless, violent, arrogant and utterly repugnant being.  Others have noted that the child narration is unconvincing: at four years of age at the start of the book, Max is far too young to have the vocabulary and awareness that he is purported to have.  But more troubling is the portrayal of a youngster made sociopathic by his upbringing who tries to enlist the reader into his world view.

The book is apparently marketed as YA.  Goodness knows what they make of it…

Author: Sarah Cohen-Scali
Title: Max
Translated from the French by Penny Hueston
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2016
ISBN: 9781922182852
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available from Fishpond: Max


Responses

  1. I don’t see what the author is trying to achieve when a novel has a distasteful protagonist. I just find it offputting – Lolita, for example – however well it is written.

    • I think there can be a place for it, but this one really is problematic. There are real people involved, people who must feel really conflicted about their parentage and upbringing, who may yet retain traces of repugnant values and attitudes and who would almost certainly find themselves under suspicion of still harbouring the ideology they were raised to believe. I think the book is trying to make us emphasise with their dilemma, but using a child narrator, and such a young child narrator inevitably compromises the character’s capacity to be reflective: in places the voice is impossibly mature, and when it’s not, it is repulsive.
      And *shakes head in dismay* what were they thinking when it was marketed for young adults?

  2. […] my review of Max, I pointed out that there are topics that need sensitive handling by authors.  Castagna has […]


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