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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL

Looking for Satire in the Depths of Hell : AFTER by Melvin Jules Bukiet; St. Martins Press $24.95, 384 pages

September 11, 1996|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

Germany falls, Hitler kills himself, and the victorious Allied armies come upon patches of territory where no victory is conceivable. Some of the skeletons in striped uniforms are able to applaud, others stare listlessly, many more lie in heaps. Among these are the dead, who will soon vanish, and the barely living, who will carry death around with them for months or years or in some cases for the rest of their lives.

Melvin Jules Bukiet's "After" is a novel set in the interregnum between the flight or surrender of the German concentration camp guards and the eventual dispersal of the inmates to other parts of Europe, the Americas and Israel. It was a slow, seemingly interminable process; at the beginning of which hundreds of thousands remained in the camps where they had been prisoners.

The occupation armies, civilian officials and aid groups rebuilt the barracks and provided food and clothes and medical assistance, but in the early months many died of disease and the effects of long starvation. There was provisional resettlement outside the camps, but despite the programs for emigration and the reuniting of scattered families, it was years before the former inmates were able to discard the status of "displaced person." Among Europe's war-torn populace they were devastation's devastation.

It is certainly a suitable setting for a novel; for many kinds of novels, in fact. It is not a suitable setting for the kind of novel Bukiet has chosen to write. "After" is a work of satire, mythically large scale and corrosive, about three Jewish survivors who come out of the camps to pyramid a series of profiteering schemes amid the disarray and black-marketeering of Europe's immediate postwar.

With Isaac from Aspenfeld as guide and sardonic instigator, and his partners, Marcus from Dachau and Fishl from Mauthausen, Bukiet attempts a carnival of greed, folly and absurdity that recalls the kind of thing Joseph Heller accomplished with "Catch-22." Heller's subject was ripe for irony: bureaucracy meets hell. The imbecilic rationality of Army rules and structures met the ungovernable horror of random death and maiming.

It was written in a style of the surreal absurd which, when carried out with sufficient imagination and ingenuity, can be used on many historical human events. Not, perhaps, on the Holocaust. Heller's bureaucracy, fighting World War II, started from a humanly understandable premise. Bukiet's was hell from the start.

Theodor Adorno's celebrated dictum to the effect that after the Holocaust there can be no art is a useful caution, no less useful because in a few cases--Primo Levi, Paul Celan--it doesn't work. Art is specially fitted to defy all dictums, even the best.

It never seems likely that "After" will qualify. For a while, though, it polishes its mordant intentions so as to set up a real resonance. The glittering intensity of Isaac, ringleader in schemes and swindles, is aimed at all pious and philanthropic postwar efforts to assuage the world's conscience over what it allowed to happen to the Jews.

"The Jewish army of do-gooders" is Isaac's epithet for the principal American relief organization, the Joint Distribution Committee. The British army flies in a Passover banquet. Instead of proper gratitude the inmates gobble up the chicken and matzo and call for pork and rye bread. Why quibble over dietary rules, they mock their hosts, after letting 6 million die?

When a delegation visits Isaac's camp he professes ignorance of the Holocaust. A visitor points to an oven. "Bread today," Isaac chirps, deadpan. No more a victim, he will be a master. He will not suffer, he will grab.

Later, outlining his schemes--forging identity documents, trading them for ball bearings, trading these for cigarettes and so on--he is asked by Marcus if he intends to conquer the world. "Everyone else does, the Germans, the Russians, the Americans, why not a few Jews?" Marcus objects that this sounds like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a hoary falsification alleging a bloody worldwide Jewish conspiracy. "An exemplary text," replies Isaac, "something to aspire to, something to learn from."

The note is turning false, the irony is being forced. Isaac, after a spell as Yossarian, has become Mack the Knife. After Heller, Bukiet does Brecht--his criminal heroes who shame the world--and then he is off to neo-Brecht, with a bloated Walpurgis-Night orgy conducted by a white-faced, lipsticked compere straight out of "Cabaret." The author's moments of tight satire turn into a farrago of overproduced plotting and ironic extravaganza. The anger is bookish, unearned; the writing inflates and sags.

After the Holocaust, art perhaps. But not artifice.

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