The Portage to San Cristóbal of A. H. Summary

George Steiner


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H. is a philosophical fantasy and thriller about the capture of Adolf Hitler by an Israeli search team more than thirty years after the collapse of the Third Reich. By this time, Hitler has become a feeble old man in his nineties. The novel begins with the immediate discovery and capture of Hitler by the search party. The sight of Hitler creates a mixture of shock, disgust, and exultation in the search party. The commandos cannot believe their eyes, for the diabolical Hitler is now only a little old man. Two major themes will grow out of this epoch-making rediscovery of Hitler. The first problem deals with the challenge of getting Hitler out of the jungle, while the second is concerned with the vast implications caused by the capture of Hitler.

The search party is fiercely dedicated to braving the perils of the jungle to bring Hitler back to civilization, to the city of San Cristóbal, and then to Israel for a trial similar to that of Adolf Eichmann. A forgetful world must be reminded of the Holocaust one generation after the event. The Israelis communicate their amazing news to their government in code words of spiritual exaltation. While the Jews struggle to take Hitler out of the jungle, however, the American, British, French, and Soviet governments find out what has happened and scheme to capture Hitler for their own purposes. The Jews state their determination to try Hitler in Israel, for the Holocaust was primarily directed against the Jews of Europe while the world stood by.

The scene briefly shifts from the jungles of Brazil to London and Moscow. The British and the Russians have learned that Hitler is still alive, thus substantiating some past theories that the Nazis had killed Hitler’s double and that the real Hitler had been flown out of Berlin in 1945.

The story then switches back to the jungle. Emmanuel Lieber, the Nazi hunter and director of the search party, exhorts the commandos by radio to ignore any verbal tricks that Hitler might use to save himself. To strengthen the resolve of the search team, Lieber recounts some heartbreaking examples of the harrowing sufferings of individual Jews, particularly children, during the Holocaust. These passages are the most moving and eloquent in the novel, an example of how a gifted writer can conjure up the past and convey at least an inkling of what it was like to experience the Holocaust.

The locale shifts again, this time to a soldier of fortune and a CIA agent who seek to capture Hitler for themselves, turn the coup into a media event, and cash in on the Hitler mania. The story then quickly switches to West Germany, where a government lawyer recalls the moral corruption and cowardice of many Germans during the Third Reich and wonders whether Hitler can be prosecuted under West German law. The news of Hitler’s capture has also reached Paris. A representative of French intelligence concludes that the capture of Hitler is a matter for the great powers. He argues that a trial of Hitler at this time would be a farce, would reopen old wartime wounds in France, would promote morbid nostalgia and entertainment, and would be meaningless for the younger generation. When the news reaches the United States, the secretary of state calls a press conference concerning the whereabouts of Hitler and the question of a trial. Like the other government officials, the American expresses his doubts over the efficacy of the Nuremberg war crimes trials of 1945-1946 and the legality of a trial in Israel. Thus, even though the great powers want Hitler for themselves, they do not want to be reminded of Hitler’s crimes. The world wants to forget.

The Jews deep in the Amazon jungle remember. The members of the search team argue about the colossal implications of Hitler’s capture and trial. Why did God permit such evil to happen? Will the world care about a trial? Will a trial become a spectacle? Moreover, how can the death of six million people be avenged, let alone imagined? Is a simple hanging too good for Hitler? Could Hitler have done it alone without the malice and indifference of millions of other Germans and Europeans? Will the Jews be accused of vengeance and the execution of Hitler then clear the conscience of the world?

Toward the end of the story, the Israelis learn that the CIA, the KGB, and the major news networks are on the trail of Hitler. The commandos burrow deep into the Amazonian jungle and themselves put Hitler on trial.

As the trial begins and the novel ends, the hitherto silent Hitler finds his voice and launches into a familiar tirade. He accuses the Jews of bringing the Holocaust on themselves by inventing the unbearable spiritual demands of monotheistic conscience, Christian love, and social justice. He claims that he took the idea of the...

(The entire section is 1971 words.)