POWERFUL AND DISQUIETING, the first fiction of George Steiner to appear since the three masterly stories in Anno Domini (1964), this book obviously burned in him till he disgorged it. Freighted with ideas foreshadowed in his In Bluebeard's Castle (1971) and other works of criticism, Portage is a short novel brisk and dramatic in action and rich in philosophical insight. A best seller in England and France, it has been praised by leading critics there.
At its center, the plot concerns a small Jewish team who, after years of false leads and failures, track Adolf Hitler into the unexplored fastnesses of the Amazonian rain forest and finally find him. Half-dead from the trip in, the group sends out a coded message to their chief, a message heard and acted on by the intelligence services of the major powers. Then, carrying their prize, they start back through the tunnels of lianas, the marshes and bogs rife with rats and snakes, through fetid heat and black lashings of rain toward San Crist,obal, and its cold beer and open sky.
The trek out is reminiscent of Richard Sale's tale of an excape from Devil's Island in Not Too Narrow, Not Too Deep (1943), but Christ was one of that coterie; here, Steiner's group has the anti-Christ, a pitiable 90-year-old fossil of a man who had killed 6 million Jews four decades before. A dying beast whose vigor returns as the elements savage and sicken his Jewish captors. The mountebank, the master of words, "Greater than Hillel, greater than Akibah, greater by far than the thirty-six just ones," of whom it was said, "Where his words fell, lives petty or broken grew tall as hate."
Stylistically, Steiner uses a dialogue device of dashes interrupted by thought that meshes mind and action and voice splendidly, thus avoiding the conventional quotation marks and the "he saids." It not only sustains pace but seems almost to create it. Steiner's overall architecture is also superb. As counterpoint to the team's struggle out of the jungle he orchestrates scenes in England, West Germany, France, the United States, and the U.S.S.R. involving old principals in the effort to establish that Hitler and not a double died in the Fuehrerbunker with Eva Braun and Joseph Goebbels. For interest, these vignettes rival the saga in the jungle. There, at Orosso short of San Crist,obal, the British have a veteran intelligence stringer, Kulken, with radio, landing strip, and Indian whore. Kulken is interrupted at coitus by the arrival Charlie Crownbacker, a CIA type, "red white and blue right down to his jockstrap," and the two men while away the weeks lying to each other, sharing the Indian, establishing ambush plans, and listening to increasing radio traffic that indicates the Others are not idle. The Russian agent, Semyonov, has been detected in Manaus, and Berdier, the French brute, may not be far behind.
As the team plods along, they revisit the Holocaust in their minds, recreating a catalogue of the chaos this old man and his minions visited on their families and friends. This delineation of death is as heart-rending as that in Andre Schwarz-Bart's fine The Last of the Just (1960), mitigated only a little by Steiner's method of leaving sentences half-completed at anticlimax. It yields such disturbing questions as: was Hitler himself a Jew? Why were a dozen Nazi butchers able to herd a thousand Jews to the "showers"? If they released Hitler today in Israel and made him beg for food, why would he get fat?
In a startling denouement, the old word master who had been able to gull a generation of Germans nurtured on Bach and the rigorous humanism of Thomas Mann into becoming accomplices in mass murder, defends himself. His arguments will not be liked by some Jews: Judge me, he says, and you judge yourself. It was you who created a God of vengeance, who gave us the Nazarene with his conscience and guilt and the eternal punishment of hell (what were our camps compared to that?). You led us in the small step from Sinai to Nazareth to Marxism. I was only a man of my time. Against the Begian massacre of 20 million in the Congo or Stalin's toll of 30 million in the U.S.S.R., against the quantum jump in degradation of Hiroshima or napalm in Asia, I was a piker. Finally, without me there would be no Israel, seized from the Arabs, and even now sustained on the backs of despairing refugees.
Hitler's arguments may not persuade--for instance, it is no defense for him to assert, correctly, that the big powers could have at least diluted the Final Solution by opening their doors to Europe's Jews--but they will interest and involve many readers deeply. Recently Anthony Burgess wrote that Portage "claims the same right as the plays of Shakespeare to find an eloquence for evil which evil is too stupid to find for itself." Here Steiner lets evil have its inning.
Throughout the book Steiner scotches those who advise writers to take eloquence and wring its neck, by writing fluent, often eloquent, prose. This is not to say there is not overwriting and sometimes downright poor writing-- particuarly in the Kulken-Crownbacker segments--but by and large he manages the plot deftly and is able to blend drama and history into highly readable fiction. Thematically and artistically, this exceptional book more than succeeds--it triumphs.