Some years ago I tentatively began work on a novel about a boy growing up in Paraguay with a father who had once been a high-ranking Nazi and was now in hiding. It was to be called Eldorado, and I recently discovered the mere 37 pages I had written of it tucked away in a folder on my laptop’s hard disk. It’s not bad, and maybe one day I’ll do something with it. But back then I had great plans for this book. I imagined scenes in which the boy celebrated his father’s birthday with the man’s friends, all of them also ex-Nazis who still held allegiance to the Führer in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Looking back from adulthood, the narrator would remember being jogged up and down on the knee of kindly Dr. Mengele, and when his father’s cake was brought in, the candles, embedded in a layer of vanilla frosting, formed a blazing swastika. Klaus Barbie, “The Butcher of Lyon,” was definitely going to play a role in this tale of a boy outgrowing his family’s past.
Here’s a paragraph lifted from that unfinished novel:
That night there were the usual guests, those I had watched arrive in the waning hours of the afternoon: the Doctor with his soft angelic eyes; Uncle Klaus, the man known throughout the continent as the Consultant, emerging from his rented white Mercedes with a smile of goodwill and a gentle pinch on the cheek for me, merry Klaus Altmann with a spring in his step and a song on his lips, the smell of La Paz or Lima still lingering about him. Anyone else passing through on the network, traveling on business, or simply feeling nostalgic, was also welcome. They had not yet begun to grow old and careless: most wore new names, the novelty of mustache, the superfluous eyeglasses that made them appear to be pharmacists and elementary school teachers in search of herbal remedies or truant children. Once the Doctor came dressed as a priest, his soutane blowing in the evening breezes, and when he saw me amidst the merry guests he anointed me with his thumb and a smear of Veuve Cliquot. “He has good bone structure,” he told my father as he squinted at me through a cloud of cigarette smoke, showing the gap between his front teeth. “Breeding is everything, you know.”
The “Doctor,” of course, is Mengele. And Klaus Barbie—he used the name Altmann while residing in some comfort in Bolivia (and working for Bolivian intelligence, to boot)—lived more or less openly wherever he was on the continent, often under the protection of the government in power. His escape from Europe via a ratline had been aided by both a number of Catholic priests as well as, it was suggested, officers of what would soon become the CIA; the logic being that he may have been a Nazi but, hey, he was an ardent anti-communist.
I twice watched Marcel Ophüls’s harrowing “Hôtel Terminus,” a three-hour-plus documentary on Barbie and his long happy life prior to his arrest and trial. I remember vividly the scene in which Barbie rises up, wraithlike, into the dock of the courtroom in France and turns his skull-like gaze at the spectators and the camera: a look of such simmering darkness and malevolence that one had to turn away from it for fear of one’s soul being caught by the dull blueness of his dead eyes. He was a man of immense cruelty and love of power, and his choice of victim revealed a streak of cowardice that had grown sharp with use. While in charge of the Gestapo in Lyon he had ordered the deportation of forty-four Jewish children living in an orphanage in Izieu, ranging in age from four to seventeen, to a certain death in Auschwitz. All but two were gassed; the remaining children, the oldest, were killed by firing squad. Their class photo hung above my desk while I wrote: ranks of smiling faces in the sun, terribly alive, on that still bright afternoon before Klaus Barbie signed their deportation order.
While questioning for eight solid days Simone Lagrange, a 13-year-old Jewish girl arrested along with her parents, he gently stroked a kitten before finally, and brutally, beating the child, smashing her head against the desk in his Hôtel Terminus office. It was his hand stroking the cat that this woman who’d survived the camps and testified at his trial always remembered: how could such an apparently gentle man be capable of such violence? When she first saw him (and I translate from her testimony given at Barbie’s trial), “[He] caressed my cheek, he said I was cute.” And when he struck her, she said, “it was the first time in my life I had been slapped by anyone.” In the film the neighbors who had not lifted a hand to save her and who still lived there now claimed not to remember her. Perhaps they were ashamed of their behavior. Or maybe it’s just that the past really is another country. But not for Simone Lagrange.
It was that which gave rise to my idea for the novel. I thought: how does a child escape the malign influence of a man who had instilled such fear and brought so much suffering to so many people? And what complex collision of feeling and memory did this man have to negotiate day after day as he lived his life out in his South American backwater? Okay, so far so good. The tone was mordant, sometimes blackly comic, and I had a very good idea where the story was going.
So I began to do some research. Never having traveled to South America, knowing very few words of Spanish, I did a fair amount of reading, and eventually met at my daughter’s school a South American whose child was also there. For legal reasons I‘ll call him Ramon. He was around my age, perhaps a few years older, a man of many talents: a storyteller who could hold the attention of a class of eight-year-olds; the illustrator, he said, of at least one children’s book; a guitarist with more than passing ability. He also told me he’d been in advertising in New York for several years, working at the legendary agency known as BBDO, often alluded to by Don Draper and his cohorts at Sterling Cooper, and known to every New Yorker who has walked past their building on Madison and 47th. He told me (and others) of some of the advertisements he’d been responsible for, big, clever campaigns we all had seen. He was indeed an impressive man.
I happened to mention to him my plans for the novel, and wondered if he might help me get my bearings on Paraguay, where I intended to set my book. Certainly, he said, he’d be happy to help. “Come to my house for a few hours and I’ll tell you everything I know about Klaus Barbie.”
“You knew him?“
“Let’s just say that I was one degree of separation from him.”
Research usually doesn’t get that good. I figured I’d question him on life among the exiles (and war criminals) in that country, and get a sense of the rhythm of things in Paraguay. So I came to his house, and while he told me a slightly ribald story of having a drink with a certain Latin-American singer at a café in the West Village and suddenly finding a well-known actress perched on his lap, he prepared what he called a merienda, a traditional midday snack. My idea of a snack is maybe a cup of yogurt or a few crackers. This was the better part of a cow cooked in stages on a grill, and a bottle of very rich, very potent South American wine. It was eleven in the morning, and I was clearly not going to be myself for the remainder of the day.
When it was time to work, he got out a map and pointed out the terrain in various parts of the country, explaining the climate, the state of the roads, the kinds of cars people owned who lived far from the cities; good places for people to hide (though Barbie often lived in the cities, under the protection of the local constabulary and army). I took copious notes; this was going to be a killer novel.
He opened a box of photographs that had belonged to his family. Some, decades old, were of a mansion of European design, perched on the edge of what could only have been a jungle. His grandmother, he said, had worked as a housekeeper at this palace. “See? Here she is standing on the step.” And then he looked at me: “They used to call Barbie ‘The Consultant’.”
I looked at him. “This was his house?”
“No, no. He was a well-known figure. Everyone knew him. He traveled here and there, went to one house for dinner, to another for a meeting…”
“And your grandmother-?”
“Of course she saw him often. She didn’t know who he was exactly. To her he was just another German. But she said he was charming, a very nice man.”
So we went through the photos and some more maps, and we drank some more wine and ate more beef, and when I left—I should say staggered off—I felt I was now able to write this novel. I had a sense of the local color, and a grasp of the respect a Klaus Barbie could command in the country of his exile. But something troubled me about the whole thing (above and beyond the whole “charming Nazi” paradigm, eternally distasteful). I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it was as if I’d been told a story that lacked a center; a kind of doughnut tale that remained vaguely unsatisfying.
Two weeks later I ran into Ramon at the school. He had bad news; in fact he looked so awful that I was prepared for the worst. Ramon had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. It was in the exact center of his brain, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Until now no doctor had even been aware of it. A sentence of death had been handed to him. The specialists had all given up.
And then he dropped out of sight. His child continued to be a student at the school, and I’d see his (American) wife now and again on the carpool line. And then I received a call one evening from a friend who said that Ramon had been seen walking along the side of a road carrying a rifle. Carrying a rifle? What the hell was this all about? He seemed troubled, my friend said, and it was obvious he was intent on killing himself. The story had some coherence to it: an inoperable brain tumor leads to suicide. Okay, I’ll buy it.
Things started to escalate, or rather veer off in all the wrong directions. His wife got wind of the story of the brain tumor and apparently had never been told anything about it. One prominent advertising campaign he’d said he’d devised (“on the back of a napkin over lunch”) was demonstrably not by him. And a week later, while catching the six o’clock news, I watched as a disheveled Ramon was marched off to a police car in handcuffs. He’d been robbing banks all over the area and, his disguise proving so unremarkable, was spotted after turning over yet another bank before he was promptly arrested. At another woman’s house.
The entire structure of this man’s life—his supposed career, his brilliant advertising campaigns, his tales of South America among the Nazi war criminals—nothing could be trusted now. There was no brain tumor, there was simply…nothing there. The man had been lying and, worst of all, lying to his own wife. Possibly—probably—even to himself. He was a fiction, and when he was about to be caught out something imploded within him. Life could no longer make room for this sad man, though life may very well have accepted the sheer ordinariness of a life lived less spectacularly, stripped of its ornamentation and bravado, had he allowed himself the chance to give it a try. He was like a man who, late at night, alone in his apartment, cheats at solitaire, caught in an endless round of self-delusion, a life full of jacks and queens and kings and, of course, the joker at the bottom of the pack.