Jan de Hartog's latest work may be about the ambiguity of good and evil, or guilt, or whether Quakerism is too-fine stuff for this world. The Dutch-born author is himself a Quaker and the reader had best be too, if he is to grasp or care that much about this exploration of the friendly persuasion in a harsh century.
De Hartog's morality play opens with Laura Martens, a 15-year-old Dutch girl seeking her Quaker father in a Nazi concentration camp. She finds him, and therein lies the seed of tragedy. An inventively sadistic camp commandant pretends to rape her in front of the father, which drives the man berserk and leads Nazi Kapos to beat him to death before his daughter's eyes.
At that point, the commandant, in effect, gives Laura to the camp doctor, a quivering bundle of cowardice and theoretical idealism. Heinzl is the now stock character in the literature of the Holocaust, the doctor who plays God, gesturing prisoners either to the right and slave labor, or to the left and their extinction. Heinzl bewails his fate, and it upsets him terribly every time he has to fill a truck-load with doomed Jews. But, Laura, now amnesiac (the root of her amnesia is key to the book's moral puzzle), becomes not only his concubine, but his salvation. They fall into a selfish and hotly carnal love, while outside their love nest, prisoners are worked to death, tortured and torn apart by Heinzl's dog.
When Allied troops liberate the camp, Laura's fortunes take some dizzying and not particularly persuasive spins. An ambulance driver (another Quaker) marries her so that she may enter the United States legally. The two wind up as nonconsummated man and wife, with the principal pastime for the goody-goody husband being to try to kill Laura's amnesia with kindness. Laura meanwhile, seeks cruelly to demonstrate that, at bottom, he is no better than her dead SS lover, whose fate it was to be born in the wrong country at the wrong time.
Eventually Laura goes off on her own and in the ensuing 20-odd years becomes the most unlikely of Mother Teresas: a cigar-chomping, foul-mouthed, grossly fat, hard-nosed (Quaker) savior of children in Third World hellholes like Biafra.
De Hartog writes in a flat, untextured prose that lifts off only in the final quarter of the book. The lack of texture grows principally from his habit of telling rather than showing us the qualities of his characters. We are instructed when they have become tough, weak, confused, etc. He also has a disconcerting penchant for strained names. The young man who marries Laura is Boniface Baker; an old Quaker is Parry Winkler; the Allied general who liberates the Nazi camp is Henry Shickelgruber.
Anachronisms betray de Hartog's foreign roots. Laura delights in wearing T-shirts with snotty epigrams: "If you can read this, you're too damn close!" and "To hell with housework." All this not in 1970 but in 1945, when this reviewer remembers nothing more imaginative on a T-shirt than Greek fraternity letters.
Here we have a girl educated in Holland, debauched for three years in a concentration camp, who speaks after a few months in the States like this: "So long, old buddy," and who makes dates to meet people at "fiveish." Depending on the page, Laura is given the lines of an Amsterdam whore, a Winnetka club woman or a Chicago trucker.
A novel dealing with the moral alternatives confronting a woman in a concentration camp inevitably faces awesome comparison with the vibrant humanity of "Sophie's Choice." De Hartog tries. He is clearly a serious, caring man who has thought hard about ancient moral quandaries, and about his deeply felt Quakerism, as it struggles to serve an oftmad mankind. He poses intriguing enigmas -- how many of us have been tested by the evil to which so many Germans succumbed under Nazism; what actually motivates us toward evil or good? Who, ultimately is blameless? But rarely does he manage to engage us. His unsurmounted problem lies in the need to transmit his evident caring to the reader through this plot and these people.