In early 1936, New Yorker writer Janet Flanner, a regular contributor to the magazine’s “Letter from Europe” column, filed three lengthy profiles on Adolph Hitler. The New Yorker ran them in a format more commonly used for Americans of note—people whom we now call celebrities. With the Berlin Summer Olympics on the way, and trouble brewing in Europe under Fascist governments, the editors of the magazine clearly felt that Hitler was a personality its readers should understand more intimately. Flanner, who visited Germany from her adopted home in Paris, did not meet Hitler. She did receive carte blanche, a car, and a driver in order to view the Nuremberg rallies and other Nazi events. Through her own social set, which included American and British elite, she gained access to Hitler’s political and social circles.
The outcome of Flanner’s fact gathering strikes the contemporary reader as odd: we learn of Hitler’s favourite gruel, his doting way with society ladies, his liking for long car rides and impromptu countryside picnics. Well into her three profiles, Flanner offers an aside on the role of race ideology in German social life, with an allowance that this has caused a European refugee disaster.
The challenge in reading Flanner’s profiles is to remember how little of the devastation of European cities, and of the assault on Jewish culture brought about through ghettos and deportations to death camps, had been accomplished when Flanner visited Hitler’s cronies in the 1930s.
Anton Piatigorsky’s provocative story collection The Iron Bridge takes up the challenge of understanding the development of violent dictatorial personalities from the opposite end of the telescope: his stories address the youth of Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Pol Pot, Idi Amin and Rafael Trujillo. In his acknowledgements, Piatigorsky lists the historical studies, biographies and films that influenced his creative approach to the little-known youths of these well-known figures. His approach is not entirely removed from Flanner’s. The goal of such writing is to confirm the usefulness of the private, the hidden and the suppressed aspects of personalities whose mature outlooks created great human catastrophe and suffering.
Piatigorsky leaves Hitler until last, as if his case study should be seen as the most telling or troubling of the book’s set of imaginary portraits. The Iron Bridge draws its title from a motif in the story of Hitler’s young adulthood. Called “Adi” by friends and family, Piatigorsky’s teenage Hitler is a self-appointed aficionado of many things. He is a devoted critic of the Wagnerian opera performed in his hometown of Linz; he has definite ideas about the value of Viennese culture; he paints the surrounding countryside; and he imagines a bridge “wide as Vienna’s Ringstrasse and lined with mythological statues,” which will replace the “present iron monstrosity” over the nearby Danube.
The stories in The Iron Bridge are linked by Piatigorsky’s decision to make his characters share a range of formative quirks. These include an estranged family life, an absent or abusive father, a weak though doting mother and social surroundings that are in the midst of collapse or under great strain due to political shifts. Typically, too, each character is isolated in his middle teens, at a point at which almost everything in life—sexual development, cultural affiliation, dedication to family, friends or intellectual direction—is in flux. Piatigorsky, a two time Dora Mavor Moore Award winner for his playwriting, is skilled at dramatizing these situations by way of dialogue and detailed settings.
In “Tea Is Better Than Pepsi” a young Idi Amin serves Piatigorsky as a screen on which to play the ethnic rivalries of Uganda under British rule. In “Lado’s Disciple” a 16-year-old named Soso Djugashvili, studying under orthodox priests in a Georgian seminary, bullies his compatriots into leaving their established group for one he will lead, where Darwin will replace Plekhanov as the model of revolutionary idealism and of “what it actually means to live as a man.”
The story depicting a youthful Pol Pot sets the would-be Khmer Rouge leader among the concubines and dancers of the King of Cambodia. As in the collection’s other stories, we find its protagonist, still known by his birth name Saloth Sâr, confronting a set of personal crossroads that will determine his spiritual and political tendencies. In “The Consummation” we are presented with a 16-year-old Mao Tse-tung who faces similar challenges. He rejects the young woman brought to his family home by a matchmaker, and muses over his future in a changing China where his training in the “standard Confucian texts” has been rendered outmoded.
The stories in The Iron Bridge vary in the amount of contextual detail they bring to their imaginative portraits. In the story of Mao, the intellectual and bureaucratic shifts of the period, changing family roles and disagreement over a ritualized courtship tradition lend the story impressive anthropological depth. “Bottle Cap,” the story of a young Rafael Trujillo—long-time dictator of the Dominican Republic—goes further than its counterparts in imagining the psychological make-up of its protagonist. A devotee of magical thinking, a dandy at age 16, a mama’s boy who hates what he thinks of as his “Negro blood,” Piatigorsky’s Trujillo is vainglorious enough to imagine himself wiser than the “pathetic and lazy Dominican nation” that has been “enslaved for far too long.” In himself, the young Rafael decides, is the “power and dignity” that his people lack. This is a rare case in The Iron Bridge where Piatigorsky draws a direct link between his imaginary portrait and the actual outcome of the lives of Trujillo, Stalin or Hitler. His fictional portraits do not so much interpret as hint at possibilities in each man’s early life that might confirm an obsessive view, monomania, or the habit of bullying or cowering, which may provide the pattern for a political life.
If one knows nothing about the figure at hand (who today knows about Trujillo?), the fictional biography takes impressive shape. If the reader has much reading and thought to bring to the subject, the effect of Piatigorsky’s stories may vary. In the case of his Hitler, the details used to convey Adi—his faux-bohemianism, his affected manner of dress, his pretentious way of addressing his imagined love for a girl he has not spoken with—may seem trivial. When reading Janet Flanner on Hitler one feels squeamish, even embarrassed in considering his gruel, his choice of restaurants and female tea partners, which may tell us nothing about the nature of the disaster he engineered for Europe.
There are many ways to try to understand the makers of genocidal or nationalist catastrophe. The least effective method is to dismiss them as monsters, as inhuman freaks of nature with no foothold in our own culture. Piatigorsky’s approach runs counter to this tendency, as he uses his playwright’s skills to dramatize his reading of character by way of such mundane aspects as adolescent angst, unsettled erotic yearning, family squabbles or personal weakness. But his scenarios, hung as they are on a skeleton of obscure biographical details, run the risk of belittling their subject. Trujillo collected bottle caps. Stalin’s father beat him. Hitler’s mother offered him no useful guidance. In light of the gulag and the Hitlerian genius for death camps, it is up to the reader to grapple with the question of what such information adds to the atrocious historical record.
Norman Ravvin’s recent novel is The Joyful Child (Gaspereau Press, 2011). Previous books include a story collection, Sex, Skyscrapers and Standard Yiddish (Paperplates Books, 1997), and a volume of essays entitled A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity and Memory (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997). He lives in Montreal.