The Castle in the Forest

One of the most daunting questions regarding the human condition is the nature of evil. It implies more than a simple transgression of the law of a particular society. Beyond what it implies within the context of religion, the word “evil” suggests a violation of a fundamental concept of what it means to live as a civilized human being. When one considers evil in the context of the twentieth century, the subject of mass murder is invariably at the center of the discussion. By far the greatest number of atrocities is associated with the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler, who ruled Germany as chancellor from 1933 to 1945. His acts of aggression against other nations and his systematic extermination of minority groups have come to embody the very notion of evil in the modern era. In a very real sense, his actions as a world leader redefined the Christian concept of original sin, transforming it from Adam and Eve’s mythical expulsion from Eden to the realization of the endemic nature of human depravity. Ever since the revelation of the death camps to the world, philosophers and artists of every ilk have labored to come to terms with this knowledge.

It is against this backdrop that American writer Norman Mailer created his novel about Hitler’s childhood, The Castle in the Forest. Given the appalling nature of his subject, Mailer could easily have adopted the voice of a traditional omniscient narrator, one who focused solely on the nascent Adolf’s quest for glory. Instead, Mailer attacks his subject from a more oblique angle by employing one of Satan’s servants, a fictional demon named Dieter. If one is to understand evil, Mailer seems to say, one must listen to someone who serves the master himself. D.T., as he styles himself, does not propose to merely describe the actions of the future führer. He claims to possess knowledge available to no one else: “I live with the confidence that I am in a position to understand Adolf. For the fact is that I know him. I must repeat. I know him top to bottom.” Far from being offensive, Mailer’s chatty narrator is out to inveigle his way into his readers’ good graces. He makes lewd jokes about his subject, sneers at God and his servants, and charmingly describes how he and his operatives set out to create history’s greatest monster. In Mailer’s confrontation between good and evil, there are no celestial armies of white in pitched battle against the Prince of Darkness; rather, it is a matter of one intelligence organization laboring quietly and persistently against the aims of anotherplanting suggestions at opportune moments, influencing events, and of course, winning new converts to the cause. More than once, Mailer employs this espionage metaphor in characterizing the narrator and his activities. Like a spy, the narrator has limited knowledge of the ultimate goals of his superiors and has only assumed the identity of Dieter’s character for the duration of what might be called the Hitler project. In a kind of timeless Cold War, the forces of good and evil are arrayed in a perpetual standoff, with each side making occasional gains without achieving a lasting victory. Mailer also dealt with espionage in Harlot’s Ghost (1991), his novel about the Central Intelligence Agency. Employing this espionage model is a clever solution, for it allows Mailer to delve into the early life of Hitler in an entertaining manner without resorting to the kind of pontificating that is anathema to good storytelling.

As with any good operative in an intelligence organization, D.T.’s fealty to his commander, whom he calls the “Maestro,” is as intense as his contempt for his chief opponent, God, whom he labels the “Dummkopf.” For D.T., the angels in God’s employ are a persistent annoyance; he terms them “Cudgels.” Those readers who might object to Mailer’s approach to his subject will have to contend with the effectiveness with which he carries it out. Even when examining the early life of Hitler, it is immensely difficult to separate the child from the man: One is tempted to view every small event in his childhood as a pattern for the twisted ideology of the adult. By creating...

(The entire section is 1705 words.)