The Tyrant by Jacques Chessex (trans. Martin Sokolinsky). Bitter Lemon Press. 217pp., $14.95.
A Jew Must Die by Jacques Chessex (trans. Donald Wilson). Bitter Lemon Press. 122pp., $12.95.
The Vampire of Ropraz by Jacques Chessex (trans. Donald Wilson). Bitter Lemon Press. 106pp., $12.95.
In April 1944, officials from the German Foreign Ministry convened in the mountain town of Krummhübel (now Karpacz, in Poland) to discuss strategies for fostering anti-Semitism in the various German-allied and neutral European states. Representatives from the German legations in Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, Sweden, and Turkey, among other countries, attended.
The officials assembled Krummhübel understood that successful propaganda is always adapted to the specific circumstances of its targets. Italians, it was suggested, ought to be informed of the central role Jews played in the black market. In Turkey, the translation and distribution of the “Protocol of the Elders of Zion” promised to advance the racist cause. Sweden posed a particular challenge, since historically there had been no Jewish population, and hence no passions to fire up. However, the “reaction of distaste” displayed by Swedish citizens upon the arrival of Jewish refugees from Denmark seemed to offer an opening.
The German legation to Switzerland was represented at Krummhübel by Vice Consul Willi Janke, a diplomat who had previously served as a newspaper correspondent. Janke told attendees that, “while the majority of all Swiss are anti-Semitic by healthy instinct, there is lacking a realization of the actuality of the Jewish question.“ Overt efforts to stoke this anti-Semitism could provoke an anti-German backlash, but camouflaged strategies might prove successful. Janke recommended the distribution of anti-Jewish tracts (suitably disguised to conceal their German origin), the propagation of anti-Jewish jokes, and the publication of articles about Jewish involvement in “scandals.” In this way the Krummhübel conspirators hoped to start the affective processes that might ultimately culminate in the Jewish minority’s permanent elimination.
The undercurrents of Swiss anti-Semitism invoked at this 1944 conference feature prominently in two of three novels by the Swiss francophone author Jacques Chessex, recently published by London’s Bitter Lemon Press. Chessex, who died in 2009, won the Prix Goncourt for his novel L’Ogre in 1973, the first non-French author to do so. It was previously published in English in 1975 in a translation by Martin Sokolinsky under the title A Father’s Love, and in 2012 Bitter Lemon re-published this translation under the title The Tyrant. It joins Chessez’s The Vampire of Ropraz and A Jew Must Die, which first appeared in French in 2007 and 2009, respectively. Both are translated by W. Donald Wilson.
The Vampire of Ropraz and A Jew Must Die are slim volumes, more properly considered as novellas than as novels. Both claim to recount real incidents in the history of Chessex’s native region, the Swiss canton of Vaud, a wedge of land bounded by Lake Neuchatel on the north and Lake Geneva on the south. A Jew Must Die goes beyond the historical to the personal: “I was eight years old when these events took place,” Chessex remarks. These late novellas are also linked by the fact that both center on acts of atavistic violence.
The heinous nature of these deeds probably explains the publication of these books by Bitter Lemon Press, whose list is filled with detective stories and romans noirs. However, while both A Jew Must Die and The Vampire of Ropraz recount the grisly details of gruesome crimes, they are constructed in opposite modes. One is devised as mystery, the other prophecy.
The events described in The Vampire of Ropraz occurred at the turn of the twentieth century, in a remote district two full hours from Lausanne, “a land of wolves and neglect.” It is a region of subsistence farming, where “cattle are sold to the city” while locals “make do with the pig.” In addition to material privations, the populace suffers sexually, burdened by “a guilt entwined into four centuries of imposed Calvinism.” The region’s severe beauty shows up only as an afterthought, entirely crowded out by poverty, desire, and superstition.
Not the peace but rather the tedium of Ropraz is shattered on a cold February morning by evidence of an awful crime: the corpse of a recently deceased local girl has been disinterred, desecrated, and partly cannibalized. Chessex does not flinch from mentioning the more sordid details of the offence, from the “traces of sperm and saliva on the victim’s naked thighs” to the breasts “cut off, eaten, chewed and spat into the sliced-open belly.”
Such an archaic crime, in such a backwards place, threatens to provoke an equally archaic response, and Chessex elegantly evokes the frenzied efforts to identify the guilty party. Suspects are rapidly seized and more rapidly dismissed; long-suppressed stories of prior violations are revived; “crosses are erected again in this Protestant countryside where none have been seen for four centuries.”
With no culprit or satisfying scapegoat found, the vampire (as he has come to be called in the press reports and the village gossip) strikes again, and yet again. More are corpses disinterred, more violations occur. Chessex effectively creates a feeling of suspense through the false leads and the further crimes. Since this is a story of true events, however, and since the crimes themselves did not go unsolved, a promising suspect eventually emerges: a young farmhand from the village of Ferlens.
At this point the novel turns from police investigation to psychological detective work. A psychiatrist at an institution near Lausanne takes an interest in the case of the so-called Vampire of Ropraz, securing his transfer from the local jail. In this new context we learn some of the details of the young man’s childhood, the sexual abuses to which he was subjected, and the various perversions he has subsequently indulged. Things move very quickly from this point on. Although the novella appears to be headed toward a fairly predictable denouement, Chessex holds on to one final mystery, which brings the entire story of The Vampire of Ropraz to a bitterly comic conclusion.
There is nothing of comedy, or of mystery, in A Jew Must Die, the last novel published by Chessex in his lifetime.The bookbegins with a passage from Lamentations and ends with words that echo Psalms: “have pity, Lord, on our crimes. Lord, have pity on us.” The events of the novel take place in the town of Payerne, thirty kilometers northeast of Ropraz, during the spring of 1942. Despite the change in place and date we are still in pig-farming country: “the emblem of the pig dominates the town, lending it an amiable, contented air.” Under this surface satisfaction, however, “dark currents flow,” and “a powerful poison is seeping in”: the poison of Nazism.
Chessex adopts a terse first person plural while describing the brave posture taken by the Payernese toward the traumas ravaging the rest of Europe: “[T]he Swiss Army ensures our safety with its invincible battle plan. Our elite Swiss infantry, our mighty artillery, our air force as effective as the Luftwaffe, and above all our impressive anti-aircraft defence with its 20-mm Oerlikon and 7.5-cm flak guns . . . it would take some cunning to catch us out.” Elsewhere events are described retrospectively, from Chessex’s own point of view: “I was eight years old when these events took place. . . . My father was the principal of the high school and the Payerne elementary schools . . . I remember the Nazi songs, Hitler’s rants, the Wehrmacht brass bands broadcast over Market Square at midday.” More so than The Vampire of Ropraz, A Jew Must Die challenges us to see our own way through its complex mixture of historical documentation, fictional reconstruction, and heavily refracted memories. Although this is typical of Holocaust literature, what is exceptional is the attention Chessex focuses on a single crime in a single town far away from the well-known centers of the genocide.
The first concrete historical figure to appear in the novel is Philippe Lugrin, former pastor in the parish of Combremont, and associated with a number of far-right, pro-Nazi political organizations. Lugrin, Chessex tells us, was expelled from his post not on account of his open anti-Semitism or his political affiliations but because of his divorce from the daughter of a powerful political figure. At various points in the novel Lugrin’s voice wells up: “the Jew, so different from us, with his prominent nose, olive complexion and crinkly hair on his broad skull. . . . The Jew grown fat from robbing us with his banks, pawnbroking and dealing in the cattle and horses he sells to our army.”
Lugrin’s propagandizing efforts, which anticipate the kind of work that would be called for two years later at Krummhübel, find a fertile audience among certain members of the population of Payerne, including those who have been without employment since the start of the war, as well as other young men who are simply misfits. The murder at the center of the novel is orchestrated by one Fernand Ischi, a mechanic, sadist, and “apprentice Nazi Gauleiter.” Ischi and the other young men in his circle begin with fairly small acts of slander and persecution, but before long they become convinced that more decisive actions are needed:
The time is ripe for the band to set an example for the Jewish parasites on its soil. So a really representative Jew must be chosen without delay, one highly guilty of filthy Jewishness, and disposed of in some spectacular manner.
Whereas The Vampire of Ropraz began with the crimes and builds suspense by following the search for the criminal, A Jew Must Die begins with the criminals and accumulates horror by shadowing their search for a victim. Since this is in part history, however, there is no mystery as to who that victim is. The Jew picked for death is Arthur Bloch, a cattle-dealer from Berne, who travels out to Payerne on market day in order to buy livestock. Ischi and his fellow conspirators lure Bloch to a garage and murder him with a blow and a shot. The real grisliness comes after the murder is complete, as the men chop up the body and stuff it into the milk cans that they intend to sink in Lake Neuchatel. Here, again, Chessex vividly describes the business of butchery:
The saw scrapes as it cuts into the Jew’s bone. . . . The teeth of the saw bite, the butcher’s knife slices, separating the groin, armpits and arms.
Although flesh and bones are duly submerged, the criminals don’t quite manage to cover all their tracks, and before long they are apprehended. What’s strange, though, is that disappearance of the Jewish cattle-dealer initially arouses mirth, rather than anger, in Payerne. “A cattle-dealer has disappeared? An interesting turning of the tables: that’s what people think in Payerne, awaiting further developments with a snigger.” Later, once the gruesome remains have been recovered, a change in sentiment occurs: “before the displays in butcher’s windows, the fearful population suffers an onset of attraction and repulsion that intensifies the emotion, along with a kind of collective guilt that will long endure in the conscience of Payerne.”
A Jew Must Die concludes with a pair of chapters that belong more to philosophy thanfiction . Citing the Russian émigré philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch, Chessex introduces the idea that the murder of Arthur Bloch was, like the much larger campaign of genocide with which it coincided, an “imprescriptible act”—an absolutely evil deed that can never be atoned for, nor forgiven. In these final pages Chessex expresses his own outrage at the fact that, while Arthur Bloch is dead, some among those who murdered him, and who inspired his murder, remained for a long time among the living. Most powerfully, he recalls a chance encounter with the former pastor and propagandizer, Philippe Lugrin, in a café in Lausanne. Chessex tells us that he was both horrified and fascinated by this man, and so decided to speak with him. Having done so, however, he achieves “a realization: there is such a thing as total depravity, pure in its filth, white-hot in its ruins, and it is a kind of damnation.” Recognizing the evil in the man gives little comfort, however, and so Chessex resolves to take a different course. “I have seen Lugrin; it is a sight that leaves one soiled; I must make the effort to put him in his evil place.”
A Jew Must Die presents s one biblical epigraph. The Tyrant, which is in several ways the most straightforwardly novelistic of these books, offers five such epigraphs, all taken from the book of Job. The novel follows one year in the life of the middle-aged classics teacher Jean Calmet. The titular tyrant, Jean’s father, has just died, and his children and widow are in the midst of making the funeral arrangements. Very little of the reactions of these other relatives get through to the reader, however, as the novel focuses squarely on the feelings of Jean, the youngest son, who regards his father’s death with a mixture of disbelief and relief.
Much more so than Chessex’s late novellas, The Tyrant constructs a careful character portrait. The psychoanalytic investigation of, and by, real historical individuals that features prominently in The Vampire of Ropraz is inverted here, with Chessex employing common psychoanalytic tropes, such as the figure of Saturn devouring his children, to give depth and conflict to his main character.
Jean endures trauma not only due to his generational position within his family but also within society at large. The students at the Gymnase where he teaches are caught up in the radicalism of the ‘70s: more than once Jean watches them pass through the streets of Lausanne, “big children with long hair, a parade of necklaces made of tiny bells, saris, faded blue jeans, anti-nuclear bomb insignia, US Army field jackets, curly beards and gleaming teeth.” At first it is hard to tell whether such passages are meant to suggest contempt or longing. As the novel progresses, we see that it is both: contempt stemming from Jean’s own sense of having been born too early to reject authority so easily, and longing borne of a wish to see the students succeed where he failed even to try.
Both longing and contempt are amplified when Jean, the only bachelor amongst the many teachers at the Gymnase, begins seeing Thérèse, i.e. Cat Girl, not one of his own students, but fully part of that younger generation. After initial failures and embarrassments, a brief idyllic period follows, but is eventually interrupted, as every happy moment in Jean’s life seems to be, by the inexorable return of his father’s influence. This remains the structure of the chapter until the final section, which is both bleaker, and darker, than those that come before.
There is a definite link between The Tyrant and A Jew Must Die in terms of the representation, whether fully fictional or quasi-historical, of latent anti-Semitism rising to expression. In A Jew Must Die this issue is evident from the start. In The Tyrant it emerges only towards the end, the result of a long string of humiliations and degradations in the life of Jean Calmet, as well as of certain subtle suggestions about his affiliations in his younger days. There is violence, too, at the close of this novel, but it is of a more restrained kind than the nauseating crimes at the center of Chessex’s two late novels.
Ultimately, The Tyrant is the most novelistic of these three books, and the least provocative. The least likely to prompt reflections on the personal residuum of collective traumas and collective crimes. Towards the end of A Jew Must Die Chessex observes that “nothing can be explained, nothing is ever clear to one who has recognized, once and for all, all the injustice done to a living soul.” His late novellas reflect this unsettled state in their form as well as their contents, and are more compelling for it.
Paul Morrow is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Vanderbilt University. He is currently a visiting research fellow at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
This review was produced during the author’s tenure as a Raab Foundation Fellow at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
 The minutes of the conference are reproduced in Volume VI of the Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression series, published in 1946 by the Office of United States Chief of Counsel for Prosecution of Axis Criminality.
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