– Vintage 2005, ISBN: 9781400079490
Read from: August 9th to September 3rd 2015
Reality in the Making
Is there a more obsessively repeated question than “what if”? We ask it when we regret past actions, we ask it when we are frustrated by unexpected results, we ask it when we dream of changes. It is true, we rarely ask it to wonder whether things could have turned worse. Except for authors, of course, with their habit of diving straight into nightmares.
Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is just this kind of a “what if” turned bad. Written in the style of non fiction novels, it looks so much like a historical memoir that you frequently have to remember that the events you are reading about never truly happened in those troubled times of the World War Two. A disquieting feeling of a disaster in the waiting, maybe because even though so far away, America did not entirely escape either the Nazi propaganda nor the blindness in front of the evil and so, under slightly changed circumstances it could have easily followed another way.
Hence the eerie “almost-true” impression that this powerful novel leaves the reader with –an impression masterfully amplified by the perfect blend of real and fictive events, personalities, family members, that creates a parallel reality so overwhelmingly real (so to speak) that it is quite difficult to think of it as fiction, since almost all the events are historically verifiable, and almost all characters, either from public or family life could have a double in reality. Moreover, as I already said, the events are presented in the form of a memoir (a genre supposed to increase the authenticity feeling in readers’ perception) – that is, the memories of a 9-year old Philip Roth, but reconstructed by an older narrative voice, none other than his own mature self that subtly corrects and completes his recollections, while trying not only to recreate the dire times through the eyes of a little boy, but also to recapture the innocence of the childhood.
The result? An almost historical novel (I think the word “almost” has got the starring role to describe it), a poignant story, told in a tranquil, equal tone that challenges the reader to deny it, either on the historical or the personal point of view.
The historical evocation goes back to the troubled forties to call into question not only the famous Jewish question but also the standing power of democracy as a guarantee of the human rights. I thought for a little while that The Plot Against America is a daring mixture between a non-fiction novel and a dystopia, but I think Keith Gressen (in New York Magazine: His Jewish Problemcoined it better as a “counterfactual Holocaust novel” or better a ”Holocaust anti-novel”, for it extends that Nazi fascination to “the land of the free”. And how immune is America to tyranny and dictatorship? How equipped is it to resist the seduction of a Stalin or a Hitler? These are the questions Philip Roth’s novel mercilessly asks, and how could the answer be a definite no when everybody thought, at least once, while reading his book, that although the story did not happen to Jews, it happened often enough to blacks. So who is to say this never happened? Therefore a subtler question suddenly arises: how are we supposed to interpret History – what is History really about?
And as Lindbergh's election couldn't have made clearer to me, the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as "History," harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.
As for the personal touch, the microcosm as a blueprint of the macrocosm, it is known that the historical novels usually turn a real event into a more or less verifiable story, giving life to a name, making-up details, decanting the events through a personal filter. Here, the filter is a sensible boy who innocently swings between boyhood and adulthood, like another Anne Frank who tries to make sense of family and world, sometimes with an unexpected touch of humor in an otherwise gloom enough narrative:
War with Canada was far less of an enigma to me than what Aunt Evelyn was going to use for a toilet during the night.
However, usually his voice is reserved and distant, hiding both the anxiety of the boy and the anger of the adult under an almost academic tone that approaches the narrative to a philosophical essay with a disturbing premise:
Anything can happen to anyone, but it usually doesn't. Except when it does.
It didn’t happen. Yet. But will it? Or rather when?