The Portage to San Cristóbal of A. H.

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

This troubling novel has to be read and re-read in several ways. George Steiner has devised a cunning, open-ended meditation on history, a fictive dialogue on the facts of the past and on the human motivations of the present that tests one’s definitions of humanity, of good and evil, and of the capacity of fiction—indeed of language itself—to capture and to create meaning. Language and Science (1967) and In Bluebeard’s Castle (1971) established Steiner’s considerable reputation as a critic of the word’s articulation of history. In The Portage to San Cristóbal of A. H., he employs his linguistic and hermeneutical prowess to construct a paradigm of the ways by which the world professes to know itself. Those ways—religious, political, social, and personal—ultimately converge in the novel’s final speech, in Adolph Hitler’s last words, since he is the figure of language and history around which the novel is constructed.

Steiner has chosen his title extremely carefully to reveal both the descriptive and prescriptive dimensions of language. As words come to mind for events that transpire, those events are immediately transformed, not merely recorded. History is, in part, a product of language. Thus, it is significant that Larzer Ziff’s review of the novel (Commonweal, May 21, 1982) wrongly refers to “The Passage to San Cristóbal,” inadvertently calling attention to the right word, “portage,” which suggests much more than just the carrying of Hitler through the Amazonian jungle to confront the world’s judgment. The portage is also the track or route through which Hitler is transported, and that passageway goes through more than merely the jungle; it leads to the rest of the world, as Steiner makes clear by constantly interrupting the progress of Hitler’s captors in their swampy environs with scenes set in England, Russia, Israel, Germany, France, and the United States that register the global impact of his capture. He is the baggage, the cargo, the freight of the modern world. To discover that he is still alive, nearly ninety, makes his presence palpable. He is the world’s burden, in person, at what reviewer D. Keith Mano calls “an allowable age. A human one.” His portage, then, becomes the price of carriage, since he is the weight the world struggles to bear, the weight his pursuers barely manage to hold without collapsing. One’s part in this portage, finally, is inescapable, for finding Hitler is the common adventure that forces one to confront again all that has been said about him and the many ways the world has committed itself for and against him.

Seven of the novel’s seventeen chapters directly concern the efforts of Simeon, Gideon Benasseraf, John Asher, Elie Barach, and Isaac Amsel to transport Hitler safely “home,” as Simeon puts it at the end of chapter 3. The search party has been directed by Emmanuel Lieber, the indefatigable Nazi hunter, from his bases of operation in London, Turin, and Tel Aviv. Simeon reflects on the party as Lieber’s “creatures.” They are the “animate embers of his calm, just madness,” born out of his survival of the “death pit of Bialka.” The novel begins with Isaac’s discovery of Hitler, “the one out of hell.” Isaac believes he has cornered a demon; the novel suggests that he has encountered something more and less than that, since Hitler’s significance is not merely putative. His purpose, on the contrary, has to be argued and filtered through his captors’ minds, so that Gideon, for example, tells Isaac that Hitler is the scapegoat, the one on whom the world will put its “whole guilt.” Elie Barach, on the other hand, prays for the dead and strives to regard himself and his fellows as “Thine instrument but not thy replacers.” Each point of view will be addressed again in their captive’s concluding oration.

Steiner brilliantly evokes the jungle they traverse and the appropriateness of Hitler’s place in it. Even when Steiner’s language might be termed ostentatious, he manages to portray a sharply detailed environment which rivets one’s attention, especially in the passage where the search party is attacked by bats. As the men strike back at the plummeting bats, it is as if the black scenes of war, of the stifling of human life, are eerily reenacted in the careful observations of nature and its creatures: “their brown leather wings slapped the cane grass and crazy for flight they wheeled from the thrashing men. But the thorn brakes and hollow of vines held them caged. They dived at the hot smell in the trodden grass and screeched.” Simeon wonders at the “delicate curve” of an immobilized bat’s nails, which brings to mind the “hands of a blind child.” Ironically, it is Hitler who restores calm, who sounds the “all clear,” as though a bomber attack has ended. “Finished,” he remarks...

(The entire section is 1999 words.)