Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.
Click here for all past and future posts.
A Jew Must Die by Jacques Chessex, translated by W. Donald Wilson
Publisher: Bitter Lemon
Why This Book Should Win: Second Chessex book to make the longlist in two years; Switzerland deserves some play; maybe the most accessible and gripping of the longlisted titles; people love WWII-related novels; title is one of the more disturbing of eligible books this year.
I wrote today’s post.
Michael Orthofer turned me on to Jacques Chessex last year when he recommended The Vampire of Ropraz for the BTBA longlist. I tend to avoid “those” sorts of books—the crime-related ones, the ones with vampires in the title, the books that sound like they could be gory. But Michael is a sharp reader, and I have to admit that Ropraz took me by surprise and totally won me over.
When Bitter Lemon sent along a copy of A Jew Must Die a few months back, I fell into my same old prejudices: the title is a bit off-putting, the cover a little less than appealing, it’s about World War II (sorry, but /yawn), there is a murder involving an iron bar, etc., etc.
But, once again, I totally sucked at evaluating the greatness of this book. Once the BTBA committee picked it for the longlist, I decided that I really should read it (I’m working my way through all 25 title, and will hopefully finish all of them before the winner is announced), and once again, I was captivated.
It only took an hour to read this novella, which is perfect, since this is essentially a written version of a Dateline episode set in 1942 . . . Seriously. Just listen to the
voice over narration of a few key moments:
Arthur Bloch usually covers the short distance between Monbijoustrasse and the railway station on foot, stepping out to the rhythmic tap of his stick. He gets into the first train to La Broye, which reaches Payerne via Avenches. He likes this ninety-minute trip through the stretches of meadows and valleys still filled with mist in the early-morning light.
Arrival in Payerne at 6:18. Chestnuts in bloom, silken hills, bright weather, all the more beautiful since threatened from within and without. But Arthur Bloch is unaware of the danger. Arthur Bloch does not sense it.
Almost the whole book has this same sort of omniscient distancing that causes this to read like a news report. Which makes this even more compelling, and avoids a lot of the trappings of writing a book about a horrific Nazi crime. Characterization is spotty, so we don’t have to experience the cognitive dissonance of empathizing with a fucking monster. Bloch’s death is told in direct, unadorned facts, which both keep the narrative from becoming too melodramatic and create a very creepy vibe.
A Jew Must Die is a horrifying book about a horrifying crime committed by horrifying people. And for all the books about this sort of thing that have been written, this one manages to distill the horror into something direct that will remain in my memory for a long time.
Over at World Books, Bill Marx has a very thoughtful review of two Swiss horror books: The Vampire of Ropraz, by Jacques Chessex, translated by W. Donald Wilson and published by Bitter Lemon (a Best Translated Book nominee) and The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf, translated by H. M. Waidson and published by Oneworld Classics.
The spanking new The Vampire of Ropraz asserts that, when faced with irrational violence, the forces of ignorance and fear predominate. The classic The Black Spider (which was first published in 1842; this is a reprint of the 1958 English edition) revolves around a reneged deal with the Devil, who wants, but doesn’t get, an unbaptized child as payment for his services. The betrayal unleashes the title monster, who can be stopped by goodness, if it is free of moral corruption and hypocrisy. The latter turns out to be a tall order. But at least there’s some Paradise around to counterbalance Gotthelf’s Hell.
Interestingly, both of these books root their avenging vision of mayhem in the brutal mistreatment of children. Gotthelf appears to wish for a God “Who would avenge Himself terribly for all the injustice that is done to poor children who cannot defend themselves.” In a strange way, the Devil is doing the Lord’s work by punishing the sadists among the low- and upper classes.
I was pleasantly surprised by The Vampire of Ropraz, and although The Black Spider doesn’t sound like my sort of book, it does come with a ringing endorsement by Thomas Mann, who claimed it is “like almost no other piece of world literature.”
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