Book Review: The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.

“The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H.” by George Steiner

What would you say if given the chance to confront one of the most hated men of the last century? What if your loved ones had suffered and died by his hand?

Welcome to one of the most disturbing and controversial books ever written. The basic premise is simple: It’s 1977. Jewish Nazi-hunters have discovered that Adolf Hitler did NOT die in his Führerbunker, and have tracked him down in a remote hideout in the Amazon. Their goal is to take the 90-year-old man safely and secretly through the jungle to San Cristóbal, so that he could be taken back to Jerusalem to stand trial.

However, this is no mere “what if” piece of historical fiction. Rather, it is a philosophical look into the nature of evil and the power of language. Throughout the relatively short novel, dozens of characters are introduced, but very few (if any) are developed to an extent where readers really get to “know” them. Instead, Steiner gives glimpses into the minds and bureaucracies of people and nations impacted by Hitler’s reign of terror.

When the story was first published in 1979, it sparked a firestorm of controversy. Most of the controversy revolves around the final chapter, in which Hitler finally speaks in his own defense. Readers have rightfully been repulsed and horrified at the brute force of Hitler’s logic and rhetoric as he not only justifies himself, but claims that the Jews ought to be grateful to him; after all, he says, would there have ever been a Zionist state without the Holocaust?

Many critics have believed that Steiner — a Jew — was himself justifying Hitler’s actions, by virtue of giving A.H. the “last word”. The book ends without any rebuttal to the four points given in his self-defense. The actual final word is spoken by an Indian guide named Teku, who simply says, “Proved.” Many have questioned whether he meant by this that Hitler had proved his own case, or whether he was incriminated by his own testimony, but I think the actual answer to this question is very subtly hidden in the name Steiner gave this native guide: “Teku” is a Hebrew word meaning “the question remains undecided”. I believe that readers are meant to come to their own conclusions.

I did not get the sense at all that Steiner was in any way sympathetic to Hitler. Most of the first sixteen chapters are devoted to the horrors of the Third Reich, particularly a long monologue by a Jew named Lieber which acts as a counter-balance to Hitler’s monologue at the end of the book. Instead, the message that I felt Steiner intended to communicate with me, the reader, was the idea that evil can be very seductive; Hitler’s speech is a very unpleasant (but important) reminder of the power of words to persuade otherwise sensible people to believe all manner of atrocious things. We must remember that Hitler was a master communicator, who convinced millions of people to follow him and accede to the implementation of his “Final Solution”. Should we be shocked at the idea that a justification of Hitler’s crimes could actually be made to sound reasonable? If we think something like that could never happen, we invite history to repeat itself.

There are also some other very important philosophical questions raised in this novel. What does revenge actually accomplish? Can any measure of vengeance bring closure for the families of victims? Can someone become too old to stand trial? If one man, no matter how evil, has been made to be a symbol of the evil actions perpetrated by thousands of individuals, is it possible to give him a fair trial? Who gets jurisdiction to try him? The continued relevance of these questions is evident in the recent and ongoing proceedings involving 91-year-old John Demjanjuk, the last Nazi war-crimes defendent, who a month ago was found guilty by a German court of 28,060 counts of accessory to murder.

This is certainly not a pleasant nor easy novel to read, but it is an important one. We need to be stretched, and reminded of our own propensity for evil if we are to stand any chance of resisting or opposing it. This book is a challenge worth facing. Buy it here.

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