Lustiger, Gila (2015), Die Schuld der Anderen, Berlin-Verlag
Have you ever read a book and wished its author was a better prose writer? By which I don’t mean, have you ever read a bad book and wished you’d read a good one instead. No, have you ever read a book that was genuinely interesting and good in many ways, but hampered by mediocre prose and/or strange ideological biases? They turn up now and then in my reading, these books. I guess, Paul Auster is an example of that, Richard Powers is maybe another, in some of his books. I have, however, never encountered as tantalizing a case as Gila Lustiger’s new novel Die Schuld der Anderen. In almost 500 pages, she creates a rich panorama of modern France, tied into not one but two crime writing narratives that draw from different traditions. Jewishness, history, corruption, murder, sex trafficking and other themes are woven into a book that never feels overburdened by these heavy topics. It’s a difficult balancing act that she manages well. All of this comes on top of a deft job at turning a real life case of dozens of workers at a chemical plant who, in the course of their work, came down with kidney cancer, into a riveting narrative. The skill and research involved could have made for a very good book if it had not been for an unbelievably pedestrian prose and strange obsession with Islam. I liked the book so much that I kept hoping it was some kind of pastiche, I looked up sources that I assumed were referenced stylistically, but no such luck. The prose is derivative, but not artfully so. It’s flat and dour, dragging the story down with it. That said, I strongly recommend a translation. It’s not on the level of the books that I listed as “Translatables” elsewhere, but many of its faults should vanish in translation, if written by a translator with a nimble enough pen. The rest of it, the history and characters and the sense of a France with a complicated and dark past and an uncertain future, these elements would remain. It’s a hard book to review, because the prose was so unpleasant to read, but at the same time, the book’s other aspects were enough to keep me reading. With its writing, I can’t really recommend it, but I do think it would fare very well in translation.
Die Schuld der Anderen, which can be translated as “The Guilt of Others”, is Gila Lustiger’s fifth novel. Lustiger is the daughter of the vastly more famous Jewish historian and entrepreneur Arno Lustiger, who was born in Poland in 1924 and was interned in multiple concentration camps during the Third Reich. After the war he settled in Germany where he became a founding member of the Jewish community in Frankfurt, as well as a prolific and outspoken scholar on the topics of Jewish history as well as Jewish resistance during the Third Reich. Gila Lustiger, his daughter, grew up in Frankfurt, then spent much of her early adulthood in Israel until she moved to Paris in the late 1980s where she’s still living. Her very first novel Die Bestandsaufnahme (1995) is an examination of Jewish lives during the Nazi era, in a way a direct continuation of her father’s intellectual project. It’s very unevenly written, but contains some striking observations and contextualizes the almost incomprehensible horror of the Jewish fate with all the skill of a well educated debut novelist. Contrary to what one would expect, there is more good writing in this early book than there is in Lustiger’s new novel. The cumulative effect of the lives unfolded in its pages is truly powerful. It’s also the only book of hers that has been translated into English (by Rebecca Morrison) as The Inventory. Her real breakthrough didn’t, however, come until her third novel, So Sind Wir (~That’s how we are), which was on the 2005 shortlist for the German Book Award, the most prestigious award for new novels. So Sind Wir is again a novel with very pronounced Jewish themes: this time, she takes a long look at her own family history, in particular her father’s life. It’s an interesting take on the family novel, playing with the idea of truth and fiction, victimhood and persecution, self and history. It’s not just a simple sentimental retelling of her father’s difficult life. Driven by a craving for normality, the book’s narrator makes it clear that she’s not angry at the Germany who murdered her family or looked away while others did it. Paradoxically, she expresses anger at the victims. She does not want to be the ‘daughter of a holocaust survivor’ and at the same time it’s impossible to ignore the culpability of the parents and grandparents of her fellow students. It’s only in the second half of the novel that she attempts a synthesis between those impulses.
So Sind Wir is an interesting novel that keeps referencing the act of remembering, of creating and opposing common narratives around the Shoah. Objects like photographs are examined and contextualized. The book strongly reminded me of some later texts by this year’s Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano (cf. my review here) – interestingly, her new novel, set in France, made me think of Modiano once again, but this time of his debut masterpiece. As I pointed out in my review, much of the book’s impetus seems to be provided by the inextricable nature of French literature, history and culture, with French strains of Antisemitism and, indeed, with French Jews. In Die Schuld der Anderen, Gila Lustiger presents to us a protagonist who, in his personal heritage, combines this mixture: he is half Jewish and half gentile, and his non-Jewish family are industrialists whose power reaches deep into the highest strata of French and European politics. A character that serves as a metaphor: French Jewish history and French history proper are so closely intertwined as to make it impossible to separate them. In this, she anticipated the French prime minister Manuel Valls’ dictum that “la place des Francais juifs, c’est la France”, which he offered in reaction to Netanyahu’s suggestion that Jews should all emigrate to Israel. Lustiger, who in her earlier books had interrogated the place of Jewish communities in Germany and among Germans, is doing the same for France in Die Schuld der Anderen. But unlike those earlier books, she makes it part of the general background for a story that has nothing to do with Jewish history or identity. It is truly impressive to what extent she has managed to debate questions of Jewish identity as part of her work on the personal background of her characters. This explains why Die Schuld der Anderen is her longest novel to date: it’s more than just one novel. It’s three different ones, expertly merged into a single narrative. If only the writing itself was better.
The novel’s main narrative takes a look at one of several French scandals centered around France’s chemical plants and workplace toxicity in general. Her protagonist, journalist Marc Rappaport, decides to investigate an old murder case that appears to be fairly clear cut. 30 years ago a young sex worker was murdered and now all of a sudden, evidence appears to surface that implicates a bank teller who could not seem less of a murderer if he tried. Rappaport immediately distrusts the case brought against this man and sets out to find the real killer. In the course of his investigation he dives deep into a France that appears to be rotten with sex trafficking, corruption and rape, and pretty much everyone in power is implicated in one way or another. This part of his investigation reminds the reader of the stark 1970s noir novels and films where the rot in society’s foundations ends up overwhelming even the most well meaning of investigators. The colors Lustiger uses are strong, almost garish. Many of the scenes involving this case leap right off the page, with characters that are very flat, but highly engaging. There is a feeling that for all the research Lustiger has done, not an overwhelming amount involved active sex workers. Many of the characters and scenes are reminiscent of similar characters or scenes we know from TV or movies. For a book that starts and ends with finding and punishing the murderer of a prostitute and discusses the terrible things that happen to sex workers, she is not greatly interested in their plight. That’s not, however, to the detriment of the novel. Lustiger spends less time fleshing out this case, so she depends on its characters being vivid and memorable. Working with grays would make it much harder to cram everything into the book she wanted to put in and still be clear and comprehensible. The other case, one that Rappaport uncovers while following up on that murder, is much less spectacular in the usual ways. It’s about workplace safety and kidney cancer contracted by dozens of factory workers. Rappaport discovers the scandalous practices of Nutrissor, a company providing nutrition enhancements like Vitamin A, in the process exposing its workers to carcinogenic substances. Rappaport, a sleuth who is part Maigret, part Philip Marlowe, manages to juggle both investigations, uncover sources and evidence, all the while filling us in on modern French history.
Gila Lustiger did not pull her topic out of thin air – she references a problem that is very present in contemporary French discourse. Two excellent books have recently come out that take a long, hard look at French practices when it comes to poisoning its populace and workers. One of them, Les Empoisonneurs (2005) by Vincent Nouzille, takes a broader view and discusses the myriad of different ways that French policies put French citizens in danger. France ranks, according to Nouzille, near the bottom of European countries when it comes to protecting its citizens from various poisons. Nouzille, not adverse to polemic exaggeration, nevertheless has strong research backing up his strong claims. He predicts 40,000 deaths per year until 2025 that are directly traceable to neglectful policies. More specifically, in relation to Lustiger’s novel, he suggests that over 60% of French workers will have been exposed to asbestos at some point in their lives, compared to 25% of the general populace. Nouzille points out how fears of irradiation and general issues connected to nuclear power are discussed much more frequently than other poisons. And he (as does Lustiger) raises awareness of how normalized it has become to endanger your workers, if the economic gain appears to vindicate such policies. In this, he follows Bruni Mattéi’s landmark essay on the invention of professional risk. A book that’s more specifically interested in the fate of workers is Annie Thébaud-Mony’s cleverly titled Travailler Peut Nuire Gravement À Votre Santé (2007). Resembling a fictional article that’s discussed in Lustiger’s novel, at least in form, it looks at different fates and workers and at the way companies are mainly concerned with ways to hide what they are doing to workers. That hiding can come from reclassifying poisonous materials as safe, or, as in Die Schuld der Anderen, by making sure intermediary materials are not checked for toxicity at all, or even by contracting out all the truly hazardous work. A worker quoted in the book expresses the trust that many workers have in their company. It may not be their best friend but surely they won’t let us die here, right? Someone would have said something at some point, right? But company doctors are mostly concerned with getting you back to work, not getting you healthy. Nouzille and Thébaud-Mony both chart the loss of that trust in French politics to succeed in the basic job of not killing its own people in the workplace.
Gila Lustiger is not just broadly inspired by a series of events. In fact, she uses a very real case. The company she calls Nutrissor is called Adisseo in real life and it’s one of the three largest producers of animal food in the world. In 1981, Adisseo used something called Chloracetal C5 in order to produce Vitamin A for animal products. At least 10 workers contracted kidney cancer due to exposure to it. The first case was discovered in 1994, but the company had known since at least 1991. In 2007, the rarest of rare events happened: a French court declared Adisseo, one of France’s chemical titans, guilty of negligently causing the cancer of those 10 workers. It was spectacular due to how rarely these things happen, but it did not change France, or even Adisseo. That’s why Lustiger describes the actual case, but she chooses a different ending. Her France is a France of violence and power struggles. It’s a country where you don’t get redress in court, where you don’t really take recourse to the police or politics. The book, I will say this much without spoiling the ending, does not ‘end badly’, several problems get worked out. In the end, the reason Lustiger sidesteps the courts and police procedures can be found in the title of the novel.
Die Schuld der Anderen is a novel about guilt. Everybody, it turns out, is complicit in how the system works, how it’s allowed to function. By pointing to other people’s guilt we are blinded to our own guilt, to our own contributions to the suffering of others. Lustiger makes this point astutely and repeatedly, and, despite herself, the point turns out to be bigger than the book, because it points at the novel itself as well. One interesting thing that keeps happening is that Rappaport listens to people talking around him and tells us about it. He overhears discussions and phone calls and the author rarely ties these observations into the larger plots of the book; it seems a minor detail, but it reflects something about the way the novel works. By inviting voices, history and facts into a book that also contains a sensational murder mystery and traces of conspiracy thrillers, Lustiger dissolves some of the borders between the book and the world, and some of its failings become functional as further examples of complicity. In the middle of the book there’s a two page rant about Islam. It has nothing to do with anything else, but as various interviews and articles show us, it’s a personal obsession of the author, who, in this way, becomes another example of righteousness blinded to its own complicity. Blurring the lines between fact and fiction, between the book and the world, between the author’s examination of her characters and the way that examination turns a spotlight on the author herself, it makes it genuinely difficult to look at the book’s numerous flaws and not consider them somehow a functional part of the book. I’ve genuinely reread particularly badly written passages multiple times, trying to figure out whether they were intentional pastiches of genre writing in German or whether they just showed, as many other genre novels in this country do, the terrible influence of decades of bad genre translations from English and French. In the end it doesn’t matter. Bad writing is bad writing, but much of the book is compelling enough to recommend the book. Maybe not as a book to read, but definitely as a book to translate.
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