Hitler, Mussolini, and Me
A Sort of Triography
(The Permanent Press)
Davis's fourth novel is brimming with scatology and sardonic humor. The narrator, Colgan, is a dissipated Irish expat and unremarkable art historian who is collared into being the tour guide for Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini for the Nazi leader's 1938 five-day state visit to Italy.
None too pleased with this new assignment, Colgan nevertheless finds himself along with Mussolini and other Italian dignitaries, awaiting Hitler's train. "The man who alighted from the train was remarkably unremarkable . . . he had a long body with short legs attached like an afterthought."
He is much struck by one attribute of Hitler's not mentioned in most history books: the Nazi dictator's eye-watering, sinus-stinging, gag-provoking flatulence. Mussolini had the opposite problem: Suffering from a severe ulcer, Il Duce was restricted to a milksop diet, including large quantities of milk, resulting in chronic constipation.
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We're somewhat nonplussed about the message of this book. The author is making fun of two of the most repulsive barbarians of the twentieth century. The theory is that by laughing at them, turning them comic, we are reducing them.
He obviously doesn't get it. Treating these two with humor - - - no matter how scatological - - - is an insult to those who suffered so under them: millions ravished, tortured, driven mad, forced to flee is no joke
By underplaying these two and their unbounded malice, Davis is deliberately ignoring their murderous world. The glories of the Renaissance in Italy overturned in a decade, German's Enlightenment devalued in an orgy of violence.A decade ago we reviewed Taudl Junge's Until the Final Hour. She was one of three secretaries to remain in the bunker with the top Nazis until, after the suicides of Hitler and Eva Braun, she fled. We remarked in our review,
She claims she knew nothing of the concentration camps, the SS, the Gestapo and the Death Squads. . . . As secretary, documents certainly flowed through her hands which treated with these matters.
In Final Hour there are "stories of Hitler exchanging chit-chat with one of the foreign officers, telling him he should marry a 'tree-monkey,' or 'He talked cheerfully and with a certain humor about earlier journeys in this train, and his dog, and he cracked jokes about his colleagues.'
"The Führer would put on his soft peaked cap - - - the only item of headgear that he didn't place upright on his head like a saucepan," she tells us, and we have to remind ourselves that this Chaplinesque character was the man who was responsible, directly or indirectly, for the death of some 30,000,000 people.
"As we near the end," we wrote, "Junge tells us that everyone in the bunker 'chatted, laughed, made love, and drank.' One is struck not by the majesty of the upcoming disaster but trivia of it: how Blondi the dog was able to sit up or walk on two legs, how Hitler's physician Dr. Morell was so fat that 'the circumference of the man now trying to get though the door was so vast that I was afraid the frame would burst apart.'"
And at the very end, when the five children of Joseph Göbbels are poisoned and carried out of the bunker in bags, she tells us of her sadness. It is a sadness, one thinks, that might be a bit tainted, given the tragedies that took place on the outside during the two-and-a-half years she was in the bunker.
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We are surprised that Davis did not manage to sneak in Jossif Vissariónovich Dzhugashvilii to cavort with Hitler, Mussolini, and Me. He could have highlighted Stalin's madcap, fun-loving ways - - - his crude jokes, those late hours in the Kremlin, revelling with Lavrenti Beria, and a soused Vyacheslev Molotov, even the vodka-laced but lovable Kaganovitch Mikoyan. The four of them, perhaps, singing an off-key, ribald version of "The Song of the Volga Boatmen," all before they pass out in a boozy heap on the floor. A passel of jesting to help make it possible to ignore the collectivization of the kulaks, the far-off gulags . . . the ravaging of so many hopes, and lands, and peoples.