ross benjamin



The Journey

By H.G. Adler

Translated by Peter Filkins

Random House

2008, $26, pp. 320


H.G. Adler's The Journey is a Holocaust novel that contains no explicit reference to Jews, Nazis, ghettos, concentration camps or Auschwitz. Instead, Adler presents his account in a generalized, anonymous mode reminiscent of a fable or fairy tale. It begins in the second person: "No one asked you, it was decided already, you were rounded up and not one kind word was spoken." Messengers come into homes bearing a decree: "Thou shalt not dwell among us." For the recipients of this message, a litany of prohibitions makes life impossible: "Shops were forbidden, doctors, hospitals, vehicles, and resting places, forbidden, all forbidden. Laundries were forbidden, libraries were forbidden...What was and what could be were forbidden." Those whose entire world and future existence have been abolished turn into "ghosts;" there is no longer any name for "those formerly known as human beings." They are sent on a nightmarish journey, hauled away in trains, imprisoned, enslaved and killed. The authorities view this systematic project of removal as a process of "getting rid of the rubbish."

At the heart of the novel lies the fate of a doctor named Leopold Lustig and his family; only the son Paul survives. Though the place-names are fictitious, the family's story largely follows the stations of the novelist's own journey from 1942 to 1945. Born in 1910 in Prague to Jewish parents, Hans Gunther Adler studied musicology, literature and philosophy at Charles University, where he received his doctorate in 1935. Following the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, he was deported to Theresienstadt in 1942 with his wife and her family. His father-in-law died in the camp. After more than two years confined in the sealed town, which served as a way station en route to the death camps in the east, the remaining family members were transported to Auschwitz. There, Adler was ordered to the forced labor camp Niederorschel, but his wife refused to separate from her mother, and both were murdered in the gas chambers. Eventually, Adler was transferred to the Langenstein-Zwieberge camp, from which he was liberated by the Americans in 1945. His parents and numerous other family members had perished at the hands of the Nazis. 

Adler emigrated from Prague to London in 1947. In 1955 he published his study Theresienstadt, 1941-1945, which he had completed seven years earlier based on detailed notes he had taken during his internment. A comprehensive anatomy of the camp, the work served as legal evidence of the "Final Solution" in German courts. W.G. Sebald's reaction to it in his 2001 novel Austerlitz evokes a dimension that is essential to Adler's fictionalization of his experiences in The Journey: "In its almost futuristic deformation of social life, the ghetto system had something incomprehensible and unreal about it, even though Adler objectively describes it to the last detail." The Journey, which Adler wrote in 1950, conveys this sense of unreality through an array of modernist literary techniques: montage; disorienting shifts of time, place and point-of-view; stream of consciousness; and a stylistic mix of highly figurative and lyrical language, intricate symbolism, abstract philosophical reflection and pointed irony. 

The fictional Lustig family is expelled from ordinary life into a parallel universe of oppression and death. But Adler's polyphonic technique repeatedly dislocates readers from their sympathetic identification with the victims and forces them to face the inhumanity of the perpetrators. Throughout the novel, Adler depicts multiple subjective positions along the continuum of guilt and victimhood, inhabiting the perspectives of bystanders, officials and henchmen. About 35 pages into the story, for example, the second-person narrative jarringly and chillingly shifts from its alignment with the deportees to the sardonic, menacing voice of their tormentors: 

"Everything has been taken care of, for they did not want to strain your silky little hands...You can't be trusted with anything, everything must be arranged for you, because you are a lazy bunch that not even lifting a shovel can change...Now you are traveling to safety, your new home, just like you always wanted. Is the good-bye hard for you? That's hard for us to believe!"

Another unsettling strategy that Adler employs is his ironic appropriation of the rhetoric of the Third Reich, such as the concepts of "disinfection" and "cleansing" with their connotations of racial hygiene. He incorporates such tropes from the Nazi lexicon into his complex thematic framework. One particularly mordant passage takes the form of a grisly advertisement for crematoria: "The corpse is then placed immediately on a conveyor that feeds it into the fire of the furnace such that the lifeless corpse is never touched by human hands. As a result the danger of infection is reduced to a minimum. The perfect diet! Success guaranteed!"

No wonder German publishers stayed away from The Journey until 1962; Peter Suhrkamp, founder of the major German publishing house Suhrkamp Verlag, was outraged by the novel, declaring, "As long as I live, this book will not be printed in Germany." But today we can recognize that the book's unconventionality and inventiveness often augment its power, by estranging us from familiar labels and categories so that we must truly "imagine the unimaginable," as the translator, Peter Filkins, writes in his introduction.

On the whole, Filkins' translation skillfully reproduces Adler's wide range of tones, motifs and constantly mutating metaphors. But his attention to the novel's allusiveness suffers occasional lapses. He renders die Herren, a designation that Adler uses for the authorities, as "the powers that be," when "the masters" would have retained Adler’s ironic echo of the Nazi self-image as die Herrenrasse, the "master race." An instance of intertextual play with the world of fairy tales is also lost in the English version when the incinerated corpse of Dr. Lustig is called an Aschenputtel, translated as a "heap of ashes" though this is the German name for Cinderella. Nonetheless, these matters do not detract from the overall success of the translation in capturing a singular voice that has gone unheard until now. Filkins has done a great service by introducing to English-speaking readers an important witness to the destruction of the European Jews.