[In Romain Gary's novel], treating the concentration camps as one huge joke hardly grates at all, especially when the joke is told by Genghis Cohn, who has seen it all from inside the barbed wire and now narrates "The Dance of Genghis Cohn." As Cohn says, "If you are the holder of a historical world record for sadness, all that is left for you to hang onto is your sense of humor."
But if the humor is not too black to swallow, most readers will find it blue enough, blasphemous enough, to leave a nasty taste in the mouth.
The tale begins with an irresistible fancy.
Cohn was once a Jewish comedian, known for his bawdy jokes. Even in the concentration camp, making ready for his own execution, he cannot resist playing for laughs and in his last moment fights back with the only weapon left to the Jews. He makes a comic, lewd gesture at his executioners and so impresses himself on the German officer, Schatz, in charge of the firing squad, that his spirit takes up residence with Schatz.
But "The Dance of Genghis Cohn" goes a step deeper—from fantasy into allegory with murder, nymphomania, Christ Jesus, and an interchangeable Cohn and Schatz involved in scenes that suggest a Chagall turned into obscene nightmare. A reader can clutch at straws that have meaning for him and make what bricks he can. But perhaps what comes nearest to Romain Gary's purpose in writing this novel is hinted in another interchange, this time between Cohn and a writer.
"'Sorry Cohn. Very sorry but you are through. You are no longer good material. We writers have to keep up with things, you know. Let's face it: Jewish suffering is rapidly becoming a bit of a bore…. You've been pretty valuable to us writers, but now we have the Blacks and Vietnam … so … next, please.'"
Romain Gary intends to keep the Jewish question an open one, a live issue for writers.
Pamela Marsh, "The Nazis As a Black Joke," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1968 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), October 3, 1968, p. 17.