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The Castle in the Forest A Novel Norman Mailer Random House: 478 pp., $27.95

January 21, 2007|Ron Hansen | Ron Hansen's novel "Hitler's Niece" was published in 1999. He teaches literature and creative writing at Santa Clara University.

EVER since folklorist Lewis Spence published his "Occult Causes of the Present War" in 1940, historians have noted the Nazi hierarchy's loony dependence on runes, mysticism, esoteric rituals, worship of the war god Odin and even Satanism. High officials in the party justified eugenics and genocide with crackpot theories such as "theozoology," which maintained that interstellar deities electrically sired the so-called Aryan people while ethnically inferior races were the progeny of humans who had consorted with apes.

Adolf Hitler, who claimed that a paranormal voice had warned him to flee a crowded foxhole in World War I just before a shell exploded in it, credited his healing from the blindness caused by mustard gas with his awakening to his gifts as one of the Illuminati. And he counted among his associates the inner circle of the Thule Society, a group that sought a magical energy called Vril that could transform initiates into supermen. Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer of the SS, considered himself the reincarnation of the 10th century Germanic king Heinrich the Fowler, employed a full-time astrologer and co-founded the Ahnenerbe Society to study the Aryan race's mythical roots.

Readers of even a few of Norman Mailer's 35 books will not be surprised that he found the evil and weirdness of Adolf Hitler irresistible as a topic for his 36th. Mailer is, after all, the most metaphysical of America's major novelists, author of a book of essays titled "Existential Errands" and another, on writing, called "The Spooky Art." His fictional protagonists have included a psychopathic ex-congressman "lost in a private kaleidoscope of death," whose actions are governed by the phases of the moon ("An American Dream"), and a mystical jive-talking soldier on an Alaskan bear hunt who proclaims himself "up tight with the essential animal insanity of things" ("Why Are We in Vietnam?").

"The Castle in the Forest" is narrated by an SS officer named Dieter, "a member of a matchless Intelligence group ... directly under the supervision of Heinrich Himmler." Sent in 1938 to the Waldviertel region of Austria, north of the Danube, to investigate the possibility that Hitler's paternal grandmother was impregnated by a Jew, Dieter is relieved to find that "there was no Jew in the Fuhrer's bloodstream," that "his father and mother were uncle and niece by blood" and that Alois, Hitler's father, may have even sired his third wife, Klara Poelzl, Hitler's mother. The findings please Himmler too, for Hitler's status as a "First-Degree Incestuary" explained the "rare intensification" of character that had produced his unique properties of "Genius and Will."

Recounting the history of Alois Hitler's rise through the ranks of the Austrian Finance Ministry as a customs official, Dieter also notes with some pleasure that the odious Alois repeatedly conquered "the loosely defended bastions of the cooks and chambermaids" of the hostels he lived in: "There were days when he made love to each of the three women he could look upon as regulars. In the morning, full of the bounty of sleep, he would take care of his wife [Anna Glassl], and in the afternoon when Anna Glassl was napping and his off-duty time coincided with an hour when the chambermaid washed their floors, he usually enjoyed the coquetry of her hips as she, down on her hands and knees, swung a wet cloth from side to side -- truth, he rarely saw her face at such times. And in the evening after Anna Glassl had gone to sleep, there was Fanni."

When Anna Glassl, who is the first of Alois' wives, finds out that Fanni Matzelberger is two months pregnant with her husband's child, she separates from him and soon afterward dies, possibly a suicide. Alois then marries Fanni, and soon Alois Jr. is born and then a daughter, Angela. With Fanni weakened by the pregnancies and the first stages of tuberculosis, Uncle Alois hires his niece (and possibly daughter), Klara Poelzl, as a nursemaid and cleaning woman and falls again into the habit of seducing the help. Though Klara feels "as if her finest impulses were now bringing her nearer to the Evil One," she consents to marry Uncle Alois after illness takes Fanni's life.

Dieter then lets down his guard and reveals that he is a demon and was with them, an unholy presence, when Alois' third child was conceived: "Even as the Angel Gabriel served Jehovah on a momentous night in Nazareth, so too was I there with the Evil One at this conception on this July night nine months and ten days before Adolf Hitler would be born on April 20, 1889. Yes, I was there, an officer of rank in the finest Intelligence service that has ever existed."

What he means is that he is "an instrument ... of the Evil One" and merely inhabits "a real SS officer's body."

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