Harry Mulisch - Siegfried

Harry Mulisch - Siegfried
Rating - 9.1

What if Hitler had a son?
What if Nietzsche's ideas were culminated in the birth of Hitler?
What if Hitler was an entity of nothingness, a supreme force for the abnegation of others?

Harry Mulisch asks these compelling questions through an alter-ego, Rudolf Herter, a prominent, famous, cynical yet caring Dutch author. The sheer audacity of the questions - particularly the first - provide an immediate hook for the novel, but it is the philosophical and ethical musings that Mulisch wraps around these questions that provide the meat of the piece.

Rudolf Herter is a famous novelist who seems, with each book, to become more learned, more famous and more respected. At one stage, he considers how, in his life, he at first gave readings to cafes, then to high schools and bookstores, then to universities and finally, to a huge audience that is there purely to hear him speak and watch a master in the flesh. He is clever, aware, and very, very sharp. Thoughts lead to ideas which lead to musing which leads to thought. A sentence is not a sentence - it is an opening for discussions on life and death, war and peace, happiness and fulfillment.

During an interview for his latest book, Herter wonders about a fictional recreation of some unknown aspect of Hitler's life. 'I want to start from some imagined, highly improbable, highly fantastic but not impossible fact and move from mental reality into social reality. That is, I think, the way of true art: not from the bottom up but from the top down.'

Here we are given a clue to the construction of the remainder of the novel. Mulisch is uncommonly open about the progression of his story - the entire plot, in an ethereally subtle sense - is revealed during the interview with a young woman, Sabine.

It is a shame that the blurb on the back of the book reveals what is arguably the greatest shock of the novel. Perhaps due to the sensational aspect of the novel's 'secret' - What if Hitler had a son? - we are told what it is before the characters, as it were, know. So, while the interview is happening and we watch as the cogs of Herter's prodigious mind begin to crank into gear, there is a sense of hurried anticipation. We want him to come to the exciting part - we want to know of Hitler's son!

Happily, like all good novels, knowing the plot is different to understanding the piece. We may know every twist and plot point of a masterpiece, but we read it for the sheer intellectual and emotional enjoyment that comes with savouring words and sentences and paragraphs. Is Dostoevsky's masterpiece ruined because we know that the main character will commit a crime and receive his punishment? Of course not. The same applies to Mulisch's work. Herter is interesting, intelligent, and capable of holding our interest even while we wait for the unimaginable to be unleashed. Yet, all the same, it is a pity we know the secret so soon. The impact of the foreshadowing interview suffers because of this.

To continue. After the interview, Herter gives a reading and is approached by an elderly couple, Julia and Ullrich Falk. They inform him that they have a story which he might be very interested in hearing and, due to their frail intensity, he promises to visit. The next day, he travels to their retirement home where he is informed: Hitler had a son, and they are the last two people alive to know about it.

Herter is fascinated with the premise, and who wouldn't be? Hitler, arguably the most known man of the last hundred years, unquestionable the most 'evil' - if evil can be personified. Hitler is above and beyond the normal realm of fiction, though many have tried. Herter - which really means Mulisch - contends that Hitler is impossible to place in a fictional context, because all authors strive to create life with their art, and Hitler is not life, he is sheer, absolute nothingness.

The Falk's tell their story, and it is as much and as little as can be expected. There are carefully researched set pieces where Eva Braun, Hitler, Bormann, Goebbels and so forth are described and contained. We learn of the Berghof, of Eva's happiness and misery, we catch the slightest glimpses of the man himself. But this is not the focus of the novel, however much narrative space is devoted to description and mood.

No, the meat of the novel comes before and after, when Herter is able to fully exercise his talent for critical analysis and thought. What if, he posits, Hitler was a force of nothingness, a dismissal of life, an abnegation of existence? In a particularly clever passage, he says that, 'From his cradle to his missing grave, the joy he had spread around him had grown and grown. At his birth only his parents were glad; later he made the whole German people glad, then the Austrian people too; and when he died, all mankind was glad...'. Phenomenal.

Mulisch is intelligent and thought-provoking, though in this story his plotting capabilities are kept necessarily low. We do not need to know much more than Hitler had a child - from there, the only requirement is intellectual what ifs? This novel comes with the highest recommendation I can bestow - it is a necessary, timely, important work by a novelist at the top of his game. A must read.

See Also

Harry Mulisch - The Discovery of Heaven


Eightieth Birthday information


Dutch Authors