Tableaux from the lead-up to the se­cond world war build into a daz­zling work of black com­edy and po­lit­i­cal dis­as­ter

The Guardian - Review - - Label Fiction - Steven Poole

On the way to Aus­tria for the An­schluss of 1938, the Ger­man army broke down. The roads were clogged with a traf­fic jam of tanks. In or­der to make the sched­uled pa­rade in Vi­enna, the Germans loaded the ve­hi­cles on to trains – “and so”, we learn, “the trains hauled away the ar­mour the way you’d trans­port cir­cus equip­ment”.

In this ob­sid­ian gem­stone of a book, the nov­el­ist and film-maker Éric Vuil­lard uses such de­tails – mo­ments of farce, his­tor­i­cal flot­sam – to con­duct a pow­er­ful ar­gu­ment against the in­evitabil­ity of his­tory. We are used, he notes, to think­ing of the Ger­man war ma­chine as un­op­pos­able, but in 1938, “Blitzkrieg” was noth­ing more than a hope­ful slo­gan – “just a bunch of stalled Panz­ers”. The idea was, in fact, in­spired by the mil­i­tary writ­ings of one Maj Gen JFC Fuller, who be­came an en­thu­si­as­tic fas­cist, join­ing Oswald Mosley in “de­plor­ing the in­do­lence of the par­lia­men­tary democ­ra­cies and call­ing for a more rous­ing form of govern­ment”.

If that sounds like other peo­ple you’ve heard of re­cently, from the new Brazil­ian pres­i­dent Jair Bol­sonaro to Steve Bannon via var­i­ous far right fig­ures – well, that is the point, all the more pow­er­ful for not need­ing to be overtly made. “We never fall twice into the same abyss,” Vuil­lard writes. “But we al­ways fall the same way, in a mix­ture of ridicule and dread.”

The book takes the form of a se­ries of his­tor­i­cal tableaux oc­cur­ring in the lead-up to the se­cond world war. The first is in Fe­bru­ary 1933, when Her­mann Göring and Adolf Hitler in­vite 24 Ger­man in­dus­tri­al­ists to the Re­ich­stag, in or­der to en­cour­age dona­tions to the Nazi party. Na­tional so­cial­ism, they ex­plain, is very pro-busi­ness. And af­ter all, “Eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity de­manded calm and sta­bil­ity” – which might re­mind the reader of the good cheer with which the mar­kets greeted the elec­tion of Bol­sonaro. The in­dus­tri­al­ists – rep­re­sent­ing com­pa­nies still with us to­day, in­clud­ing Siemens, Al­lianz and Bayer – duly pay up. by Éric Vuil­lard, trans­lated by Mark Poliz­zotti, Pi­cador, £12.99

An­other pres­i­dent comes to mind when Hitler, black­mail­ing the Aus­trian chan­cel­lor, ex­pe­ri­ences an out­burst of crazed mag­nil­o­quence. “He said that in Ham­burg he was go­ing to build the largest bridge in the world . And then … he added that soon he would put up the tallest build­ings .” It need not be added that the Führer in­tended to build a big, beau­ti­ful wall.

Only once, in a book vis­cous with shabby ca­pit­u­la­tions and dank deal­ings, does the au­thor al­low him­self a pas­sage of out­right phan­tas­magor­i­cal hor­ror. One of the Nazi-do­nat­ing in­dus­tri­al­ists, Gus­tav Krupp, has a vi­sion in 1944 of a crowd of corpses ad­vanc­ing to­wards him in his draw­ing room. They are the peo­ple as­signed to his fac­to­ries by the SS as slave labour, whose deaths through over­work and mal­nu­tri­tion were greatly prof­itable through­out the war to many of Krupp’s com­rades: “BMW hired in Dachau … IG Far­ben … op­er­ated a large fac­tory in­side the camp at Auschwitz.” Vuil­lard ob­serves acidly that Krupp’s own com­pany, now the steel con­glom­er­ate ThyssenKrupp, omits all men­tion of such in­con­ve­nient mat­ters on its cor­po­rate web­site.

In Mark Poliz­zotti’s trans­la­tion, the prose has an apho­ris­tic gleam. Vuil­lard writes in pass­ing of “the great, de­cent fal­lacy of work”, which re­duces “the en­tire epic of our lives to a dili­gent pan­tomime”. And he is bril­liant on the au­thor­i­tar­ian’s re­la­tion­ship to the law, when de­scrib­ing how Hitler in­sisted that the Aus­trian pres­i­dent must ac­cept his chan­cel­lor’s res­ig­na­tion. “It’s strange how the most dyed-in-the­wool tyrants still vaguely re­spect due process,” he com­ments. “It’s as if power isn’t enough for them, and that they take spe­cial plea­sure in forc­ing their en­e­mies to per­form … the same ri­tu­als that they are even then de­mol­ish­ing.”

The Or­der of the Day won 2017’s Prix Gon­court for fic­tion, and is de­scribed by the UK pub­lish­ers as a “novel”, but it stretches the def­i­ni­tion of that word a long way. In French it calls it­self a récit – an ac­count – and is re­ally a his­tor­i­cal es­say with lit­er­ary flour­ishes. The se­lec­tion of facts cre­ates sur­real pat­terns, as when Vuil­lard re­veals that Joachim von Ribben­trop, while Ger­many’s am­bas­sador to Lon­don, had paid rent to Neville Cham­ber­lain to live in one of the English­man’s Bel­gravia prop­er­ties. And per­haps a time the au­thor de­scribes point­edly as one “dom­i­nated by a mys­te­ri­ous re­spect for lies” is best cap­tured with a mea­sure of po­etic li­cence.

How­ever you de­cide to cat­e­gorise it, this is a thor­oughly grip­ping and mes­meris­ing work of black com­edy and po­lit­i­cal dis­as­ter. It seems de­signed sin­gle-mind­edly to re­mind us that, as it says, “Great catas­tro­phes of­ten creep up on us in tiny steps.”

Far­ci­cal de­tails and mo­ments of his­tor­i­cal flot­sam con­duct a pow­er­ful ar­gu­ment against the in­evitabil­ity of his­tory

To buy The Or­der of the Day for £11.43 go to guardian­book­ or call 0330 333 6846.

The Or­der of the Day

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