Tuesday, March 01, 2016

A Surprising Discovery

The Deeps of the Sea and Other Fiction
The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H. 
in The Deeps of the Sea and Other Fiction 
by George Steiner

"Yes,  I know they've been hunting for him.  They've never stopped.  Started almost immediately after the war.  Small parties sworn to get him.  To give their lives.  Never to rest until he was found." (p 19)

In 1981 George Steiner wrote a literary and philosophical novella, The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.. In it Jewish Nazi hunters find Adolf Hitler (A.H.) alive in the Amazon jungle thirty years after the end of World War II. It is a daring fictional endeavor that is as much a philosophical rumination as it is a political thriller. It is the longest work in this compilation of short fiction by George Steiner.

From his base in Tel Aviv, Holocaust survivor Emmanuel Lieber directs a group of Jewish Nazi hunters in search of Adolf Hitler. The hunters believe that the former Führer is still alive, and following rumors and hearsay, they track Hitler's movements through the jungles of South America, until after months of wading through swamps, a search party finds the 90-year-old alive in a clearing. Lieber flies to San Cristóbal where he awaits the group's return with their captive. But getting the old man out of the jungle alive is more difficult than getting in, and their progress is further hampered by heavy thunderstorms.
Meanwhile, broken and incoherent radio messages between Lieber and the search party are intercepted by intelligence agents tracking their progress, and rumors begin to spread across the world of Hitler's capture. Debates flare up over his impending trial, where it will be held and under whose jurisdiction. Orosso is identified as the nearest airfield to the last known location of the search party, and aircraft begin arriving at the hitherto unknown town. But when the search party loses radio contact with Lieber, they must make a decision: do they sit out the storms and deliver their captive to Lieber later, or do they try Hitler in the jungle before their prize is snatched from them by the world at large, who they know will be waiting? Lieber warns "You must not let him speak ... his tongue is like no other". A trial is prepared and surprisingly the attention Hitler is receiving, however, renews his strength, and when the trial begins, he brushes aside his "defense attorney" and begins a long speech in four parts in his own defense.

Hitler claims he took his doctrines from the Jews and copied the notion of the master race from the Chosen people and their need to separate themselves from the "unclean". "My racism is a parody of yours, a hungry imitation." Hitler justifies the Final Solution by maintaining that the Jews' God, purer than any other, enslaves its subjects, continually demanding more than they can give. He claims that he was not the originator of evil and his atrocities were dwarfed by those of others. He even maintains that Zion owes its existence to the Reich. Throughout the rant there runs an underlying theme of the persecution of the Jews in history.

Steiner demonstrates both insights and an imagination of major proportions in a small space.  In an interview he told New York Times editor D. J. R. Bruckner that this book arose out of his lifelong work on language. "Central to everything I am and believe and have written is my astonishment ... that you can use human speech both to bless, to love, to build, to forgive and also to torture, to hate, to destroy and to annihilate." *   The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. was a 1983 finalist in the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. 

*Bruckner, D. J. R. (2 May 1982). "Talk With George Steiner". The New York Times.

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Stephen said...

..wow. It must take a certain kind of recklessness to pen a novel about Hitler and give him speech. Do the main characters offer a rebuttal of him?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I received your message. I have inadvertently deleted comments. I usually scream in frustration when I do :)

This is great commentary. This is also a great concept for a book.

I could easily imagine another writer penning a similar work but without the philosophical angles. Adding such depth makes this sound all the more intriguing.

James said...


George Steiner is quite capable of such recklessness. In the novel Hitler is responding to the prosecutors' accusations.

James said...


It is an intriguing book that few authors could have conceived. Steiner is one who is eminently qualified.