The root of evil

A novel narrated by Hitler's physician transcends the common 'failed artist' analysis of the Fuehrer.

1940 book 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
1940 book 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
1940 By Jay Neugeboren Two Dollar Radio 284 pages; $15 In 1943, Adolf Hitler's physician, Dr. Eduard Bloch, was interviewed by the US Office of Strategic Services. Bloch, a Jew, had been granted special permission to leave Europe - the only Jew to receive such a reprieve once Hitler came to power. In his interview, Bloch laid out his recollections of the German leader's early years, including his relationship with his family - and particularly with his mother, to whom he was passionately devoted. This, along with several of Bloch's other memoirs, makes up the background of Jay Neugeboren's latest novel, 1940, which chronicles not only Bloch's past, but his relationship with a fictional, divorced medical illustrator named Elisabeth Rofman and her mentally imbalanced teenage son, Daniel. Passages from his actual memoirs are interspersed with his narrative of their interactions, which, he says in the book, are what inspire him to set down his thoughts in writing to begin with: "For your eyes first," he tells Elisabeth, "and later on, and with, should we judge it appropriate - the more personal passages excised - for others." Bloch, via Neugeboren, presents a plethora of obscure facts about Hitler's personal life, such as his love of American cowboy films and his joy in caring for his institutionalized half-sister, Maria Anna, which humanize him and may or may not garner sympathy. Other facts, such as that one of his first acts as chancellor was "to secretly raise the wages of female ballet dancers by 300 percent in order to save them from the threat of lives of prostitution," Bloch mentions because, he says, "of the tendency of many to talk of Adolf Hitler as 'evil,' as if with this one word to dismiss the man and all that he is and represents - as if, were he gone... all would be well." Although this examination of the complexity of Hitler's character is not new, Bloch's perspective is thought-provoking and goes beyond the "failed artist" angle usually taken in this controversial approach to Hitler. However, it is Elisabeth's story that comes to the fore in 1940, as she embarks on a search for her missing father while trying - at any cost - to prevent the institution where her son lives from taking away his ability to reproduce. She is aided in this by Bloch and treads carefully around her ex-husband, Dr. Alex Landau, who she suspects plans to endorse the procedure behind her back. Neugeboren's tale offers an array of deftly interwoven motifs; questions arise on such notions as the reliability of memory and the purpose of artistic expression, along with forays into social Darwinism, Freudian Oedipal theories and the role of the medical profession in determining patients' futures. Elisabeth's overwhelming love for, and desire to protect, her son is set side-by-side with Bloch's account of Hitler's reaction to his mother's illness and death. Meanwhile, Alex - a charming, clever Orthodox Jewish surgeon enamored of mind games - elicits debate on ethics, God, the nature of evil and the advancement of the human race, employing Socratic logic, literary and biblical references, and heaps of rhetoric for his purposes. Madness lurks throughout the book, which is dry and disturbing. The reader is often pressed to wonder which characters are really in their right minds, or if any are at all. As the nature of Daniel's mental state unfolds alongside Bloch's memories of Hitler's behavioral oddities, such as his tendency to chew on carpets, Elisabeth's calculations to save her son waver between questionable and courageous, depending on who is narrating. "In her inordinate passion," Alex tells Bloch at one point, "she is greatly deluded and capable of enormous harm." But of course, one must decide whether to accept the opinion of a man described in Elisabeth's musings at the beginning as possessing an "extraordinary gift for dissembling and deceit." Elisabeth's character is rendered still more curious by the descriptions of her occupation, which involves dissecting and drawing the hearts of dead children for medical research. "As you can see... I work with cadavers," she says to the detective hired to locate her father, and points to a jar in which two hearts are preserved in formaldehyde. Moments like these surface frequently in the book, lending it an air that is both morbidly comical and chilling. Neugeboren includes impressively detailed descriptions of bodily organs and the often-graphic processes of healing and examining them. Despite their thematic relevance to the story, these descriptions tend to get tiresome; however, one can't help but give at least an appreciative nod when reading sentences on how "the right lobe of the thyroid gland had been removed, with a slice being left posteriorly to preserve the parathyroid glands and the recurrent laryngeal nerve." In all, Neugeboren's take on the era evoked in the book's title, as seen through the eyes of Hitler's doctor and an American woman, is moving and shocking all at once, a strong story about memory, medicine, love and the attempt to build a livable world out of the impending failure of idealistic visions.