Sympathy for the devil

Hitler's evil, suggests Norman Mailer's thrillingly unfashionable new saga, stemmed from incest, ani

A new novel attempts to trace, through bucolic family history and symbolic early traumas, the origin of absolute evil in a man whose name later becomes a byword for iniquity. I am talking about Thomas Harris's Hannibal Rising, the rec ent potboiling prequel to the sadistic Hannibal Lecter thrillers. But in terms of theme and structure, Normal Mailer's latest novel is weirdly similar, a kind of high-flown twin, advertising deep historical research, in which the subject is the daddy of them all: Adolf Hitler.

Is there something about the present moment that has artists so fascinated by how mass murderers get the way they are? In addition to the lurid origin myth of Hannibal, there have been George Lucas's Star Wars prequels, ploddingly transforming Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader; or the wittily nasty Showtime television series Dexter, whose hero is an ethical serial killer prodded by a murderous shadow to uncover his own childhood trauma. We await the manga comic about the difficult boyhood of Joseph Stalin; in the meantime, Mailer's novel promises to help us comprehend history's perhaps most notorious monster.

"The world has an impoverished understanding of Adolf Hitler's personality," its narrator argues at one point. "Detestation, yes, but understanding of him, no - he is, after all, the most mysterious human being of the century." The fashion in which Mailer attempts to make him less mysterious is surprising indeed.

A prologue set in 1938 has an SS man assigned to investigate possible incest in Hitler's family on the orders of Himmler - who, as the novel's marvellously sardonic narrator has it, "did have the most extraordinary ideas fermenting behind his unhappy spectacles". (To meet the phrase "unhappy spectacles" so early on instils in the reader a confidence, a relaxed trust in the prose, which is gravely tested but not, I think, broken by what follows.) Were Hitler's parents blood relations? If so, Himmler thinks, that would make Hitler himself an "incestuary", and would provide yet more evidence of his glorious triumph over unpromising beginnings.

Soon we are back in late 19th-century Austria to meet the novel's main character - not Adolf himself, but his father. Alois Hiedler (later, by arbitrary orthographic fiat, Hitler) is a voluptuary not much troubled by powers of introspection, an homme sensuel whose priapism is all that lifts him above the moyen. He rises through the ranks of the Austrian finance ministry as a customs official - "His mustache was now worthy of a titled Hungarian, and his face came at you, jaw-first" - and he porks countless maids, cooks and waitresses, getting through a couple of wives (one of whom particip ates in a brilliantly catty dinner-table dialogue) along the way. Eventually he marries his niece, Klara - who also turns out to be his child, thanks to an early episode of "apocalyptic intercourse in barn straw" with one of his half-sisters. And so Adolf - or little "Adi" - is born to a man and his daughter, and the taint of "blood-scandal" is imprinted.

Alois retires to a farm in the country and pursues his dream of becoming an apiarist. There follow a great many pages on the intricacies of beekeeping. Alois lectures his son on the pitiless efficiency of the hive: "You will not find one bee in any hive who is too weak to work. That is because they get rid of cripples early. They obey one law and it sits on top of everything." Interesting, no? Little Adi is also fascinated by the process of gassing a diseased hive, and becomes terribly excited when the local beekeeping expert, an elderly paedophile, burns alive all the bees in one of his hives after being badly stung.

If that sounds somewhat schematic, be warned that other formative episodes in little Adi's life sound ridiculous in précis. Adi learns the pleasures of the anus through his mother's ministrations: "She wiped him so carefully that his eyes gleamed. He discovered heaven." (Hence, I suppose, the famous anality of evil.) Later on, he obsessively plays war games with his friends around the local fields and hills, discovering the excitement of high command. He masturbates to the mental image of the small brush moustache worn by the assassin of Empress Elizabeth, because it reminds him of a glimpse he once had of his sister's pubic hair; at other times, before grabbing his erection, "he would practise holding his arm in the air at a 45-degree angle for a long time". You should understand, further, that Adi was troubled after having witnessed his father sitting on his mother's face; and he once had a crucial met aphorical conversation with a friendly blacksmith about what might create a "will of iron".

Note, apropos of all that, the baleful presence of Jung in the novel's appended bibliography. Yet what is surprising about the book is not how trite such episodes may seem when listed, but the extent to which Mailer gets away with them, managing in the main to quiet the reader's titters through sheer momentum of voice. I suspect, indeed, that Mailer is ludically critiquing the adequacy of such psychoanalytical explanations even as he parades them ingenuously in front of the reader. Because, according to his novel, such stuff was not enough to create Adolf Hitler. What else was required? Why, Satan himself, who was present at the very conception.

That is the remarkable - and thrillingly unfashionable - rhetorical gamble of the novel. Indeed, the narrator, whose sly murmuring throughout is a sweetly acrid, decadent music, a sort of Weimar-cabaret song-cycle that drives the reader on through all potential absurdities, is speaking with forked tongue. For he is, literally, a devil. A senior minion of Satan (or, as he is termed here, the Maestro), he is assigned to watch over little Adi, who may in time become a "client" of great promise.

Imagine a spy novel written in Miltonic mode. The devil's abilities of psychic surveillance are explained in the generic terms of espionage, and there is an elaborate Manichaean theodicy of the long fight between devils and angels (cudgels) and the Maestro and God - jeeringly dubbed, by the devil's party, the Dummkopf. (Though he dutifully mocks the enemy, the narrator cannot help admiring aspects of the creation: "Even processed paper still contains an ineluc table hint of the tenderness God put into His trees.")

Primarily, though, our imp is a witty moralist, deliciously cynical about human life. People got married because "they needed to be able to exercise one or another petty cruelty at any moment to a dependable person who would be close at hand"; and he homes in on the particular vices of egotism that provide reliable purchase for demonic activity: "Rare was the man or woman who did not possess an intense sense of the injustice done to them each day. It was our tap-root to every fault. It was a fury in every child. Our work would fall apart if humans ever came to brood as intensely upon the injustice others might be suffering."

But this devilish dimension appears to pull in opposing directions at once. In one way, the weaknesses shared by all humans are enough to recruit someone to great wrong; but Adolf Hitler was such a special case that it was necessary for Lucifer himself to be present at his conception. How does this, the reader might justly wonder, illuminate matters? If the psychic fallout from anal obsession and incestuous-minded wanking, plus a few lessons about bee society, are not sufficient to create a Hitler, what further kind of "explanation" is furnished by an appeal to literally diabolical influence?

The novel peters out while Adi is still a teenager, hinting coyly at a possible sequel. By this time, Adi is not overtly wicked (that description better fits his elder half-brother, Alois Jr, who left home having set the remaining beehives on fire and poisoned the family dog), but he is - paradoxically, given the novel's promise of "understanding" - disturbing to us precisely because of a continued mystery: quiet, bright, biding his time. At the centre of the novel's sensuously textured historical reconstruction, with its sympathetic portrait of an almost ordinarily immoral family, its flights of comedy and satire and moral fury, there is an ominous blank. In the end, Mailer's strange and haunting book may be read not as a proposed solution to the problem of evil, but as a lament for its continued opacity.