The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H.

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Novel by George Steiner, 1979

In the title of George Steiner's novel The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H. (1979), the "A.H." stands for Adolf Hitler. The premise of the novel is that a group of Nazi hunters manages to capture Hitler, now 90 years old, in the depths of the Amazon jungle and attempts to transport him to San Cristóbal, where their leader awaits them. This might sound like literary wish fulfillment, but Steiner, who has been one of Britain's most eminent literary critics since the 1960s, develops his idea in the opposite direction. Rather than offering its readers the pleasure of fictional vengeance, the novel confronts them with an intricate mosaic of nightmare scenarios and ethical challenges. It is, as Steiner himself once said, "a warning."

First published in 1979 in the Kenyon Review, The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H. immediately ignited controversy. When the play based on it opened three years later, popular protest, as well as further critical debate, resulted. The novel's incendiary qualities are largely an effect of its construction. It contains no authoritative voice. Instead of mediating the utterances of the various characters through the buffer of a rational perspective, Steiner forces his readers to decide for themselves which claims have merit. Because some of the statements are at once nihilistic and intelligent, the process is often unsettling. For example, some of Hitler's captors meditate on their ennui, on their indifference toward an undertaking that costs one of them his life. In a chapter that both evokes and inverts the main themes of Doktor Faustus, Thomas Mann's novel about the rise of Nazism, the reflections of a German legal theorist on music's ability to transcend time give way to his musings on the "fullness" of life in the Third Reich. Here Steiner addresses what perhaps has been his gravest concern: the relation of the sinister and the sublime elements in Western culture. How, he insistently asks in the essays collected in Language and Silence (1966), can we have faith in the humanizing mission of the arts when we know that Beethoven was played in the shadow of death factories?

For Steiner language, more than any other medium, generates culture. Hitler's eloquence is, therefore, a devastating fact. This implies that "a word might be at the end" as well as at the beginning. And Hitler almost gets the final word in Steiner's novel about him. In the final chapter Hitler sheds his senescence and defends himself with chilling rhetorical force. In fact, he develops sophisticated arguments about the connections between the Holocaust and ongoing genocidal events that resonate with some of Steiner's own utterances. Hitler points out that the Holocaust would have been impossible had the Allies behaved differently and that it cost many fewer people their lives than did Stalin's purges. Occasionally Hitler is more bombastic. He suggests that he culled his ideas about the racial struggle from Viennese Jews and that he, in turn, created Israel, which perpetuates his attitudes about race and territory in its treatment of Arabs. Hitler, however, has a counterweight in the novel: Emmanuel Lieber, the driving force behind the expedition to capture A.H. He continues to pursue Hitler when everyone else has given up. Admonishing the men he sent after Hitler to be careful, Lieber tells why. In a pathos-laden monologue, which Steiner places at the center of the novel, Lieber enumerates Nazi crimes in damning, harrowing detail.

Remembrance and the pain this causes are also major themes. Here, too, Steiner is provocative. Of Hitler's five captors four are Holocaust survivors. Not only does their past torment them, but their most sincere responses to it conform to literary and filmic representations of war and suffering, in some cases to bad ones. The men are cruelly aware of this. Indeed, their oppressive sense of the scriptedness of their deepest emotions and desires torments them still further.

Physical distress mirrors their psychic pain. Much of the novel consists of accounts of Hitler being carried through the rankest jungle by Lieber's men, afflicted with diseases and sores, buckling under their load and their exhaustion, finding no relief from the insects and the damp. These scenes set the tone of the novel. Some of the characters are cynical and ironic, but for most Hitler's resurfacing brings an abundance of agony and very little hope. There is no sense in the past that returns with him. Significantly, posed in very different contexts, the question "Why?" makes several characters feel the same: foolish. As Steiner himself emphasizes, the very last word in the novel belongs to a figure whose name is Teku, the Hebrew word for issues that are beyond human understanding.

—Paul Reitter

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The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H.

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