Academic journal article The Mailer Review

The Devil's Party: Reading and Wreaking Vengeance in the Castle in the Forest

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

The Devil's Party: Reading and Wreaking Vengeance in the Castle in the Forest

Article excerpt

You don't know what it is to have six million of your people killed when there are only twelve million of them on earth. You don't know the profound and fundamental stunting of existence that got into the blood cells of every Jew after Hitler had done his work. (Norman Mailer to Jack Abbott, 18 April 1979)

When I heard that Mailer had written a fictional biography of Hitler, I made up my mind not to read it. The idea was offensive. At this late date, the life of Adolf Hitler did not merit another examination, least of all in a novel, which would entail an imaginative engagement with the Fuhrer's private fears, desires, hopes, and dreams. Who wanted to spend time in close communion with that repellent psyche? Not I. Born in post-war Vienna to parents who were Holocaust survivors from Poland, I could say that I had already shared far too much of my life with Hitler.

Distaste is one thing, curiosity another. And I was just curious enough about Castle in the Forest to read J. M. Coetzee's essay in the New York Review. A review seemed like a good compromise: appraisal and analysis instead of direct contact. But as it turned out, Coetzee made such a strong argument for the seriousness of the enterprise that I reconsidered my opinion. The novel might have some merit after all. Yet I was in no hurry to read it. Months passed, and then one early spring day, as my husband and I were strolling through a bookstore, he picked a copy of Castle in the Forest off a shelf. "Here," he said, "I'll get this for you. It's a Purim gift."

This autobiographical vignette serves a purpose: there was uncanny prescience in linking Purim to Castle in the Forest. The holiday celebrates the salvation of the Persian Jews in the Fifth Century BCE from a plot by Haman, the king's evil advisor, to have the entire community slaughtered. The Book of Esther tells how, with the help of her kinsman Mordechai, she uses her wits and her beauty to foil Haman's plans. By the king's decree, victors and victims undergo a swift reversal of fortune. Haman's plot recoils back on him and he ends up on the very same gallows he had prepared for Mordechai. Meanwhile, the Jews of the realm, permitted to arm themselves, attack and kill Haman's followers. For the Jews, sorrow is turned to joy and a day of mourning to a festival.

The only boisterous holiday in the Hebrew calendar, Purim is not unlike Carnival in using masks and costumes and giving license to rowdy behavior. That the history of the Jews is replete with other plots against them that do not end so well does not diminish the festivity of Purim; perhaps it only increases it. Through the feasting and merrymaking, the retribution against Haman is reenacted as mockery. Most Americans in urban areas are probably familiar with the special Purim pastries, poppy seed or fruit-filled triangular tarts called hamantaschen, Haman's pockets, made popular by Eastern European Jewish immigrants. In the synagogue, the holiday is celebrated by a public reading of the Scroll (Megillah) of Esther, during which the congregation deploys noisemakers (called greggers in Yiddish) to drown out the name of Haman whenever it is said aloud in the reading of the text. As the Hebrew curse has it, Haman's name is blotted out--except to denote pastry. Among Ashkenazi Jews, the festivities traditionally included a Purimshpil, a folk play based on the Purim story or contemporary subjects. (1) Crossing genre borders, I now propose to read Castle as a type of Purim entertainment, a shpil in long prose narrative form that carries the heavy burden of invoking not a catastrophe averted but a catastrophe perpetrated.

First, a disclaimer is in order. Castle can be read in the context of the retributive charivari of Purim without exaggerating the novel's Jewish dimensions or Mailer's engagement with Judaism. (2) In fact, it is instructive to consider Castle in the light of a very different tradition, what one might call the locus classicus of retributive justice in Western literature, Canto 28 of Dante's Inferno. …

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