Miss Adams has assumed the duties of literary editor while Mr. Charles Rolo is on leave of absence.
LEVEL 7 (McGraw-Hill, $3.75) is a terrifying little novel about the first and last nuclear war. The author, MORDECAI ROSHWALD, has borrowed a bit from Kafka and a bit from Defoe and a bit from science fiction and quite a lot from current scientific opinion of what the results of a large-scale argument with nuclear weapons would be. has added his own fierce imagination, and combined the whole into a book that makes On the Beach look like giddy optimism.
The form of the story is that solid old device, the journal, kept in this case by X-127, an otherwise nameless officer assigned to duty on the lowest level of a radiation-proof shelter designed to house its staff, and their descendants, for five hundred years. Once down there, no one can ever leave. The place has been scaled off. Level 7 is entirely selfcontained and self-sustaining, thanks to an intricate system of atomically powered machinery, and in this unspeakable hole a handful of the human race is expected to survive until the earth above becomes habitable once more.
Practically speaking, the notion is absurd, but it is presented with such grave common sense, such attention to detail, such a careful coverage of every contingency likely to spring up in the reader’s mind that it quickly carries conviction. And once the initial conviction is established, the whole scheme of Level 7 becomes irresistibly plausible.
The plausibility does not depend on Mr. Roshwald’s ingenious descriptions of air plants and sewage disposal but on something slightly familiar about the kind of thinking responsible for the plight of X-127 and his numerical colleagues. There is a distinct character detectable behind the construction and organization of this vast underground fortress, and while it is not the character of any contemporary state, it is recognizable as an exaggerated projection of certain contemporary trends, the long, sinister shadow of present reality.
Level 7 has been created by a wily practical intelligence operating without mercy, affection, humor, or honesty and bent on technical victory, regardless not only of life but of everything that makes life worth living. It is not the responsibility of any single man, but rather a community intelligence functioning with impersonal precision. It is beyond the reach of remonstrance or even comment by the citizenry and is unaffected by any individual’s scruples or. as it turns out, understanding. Catastrophe occurs because the perfect defensive system cannot distinguish between a genuine attack and an accidental explosion, and the order that precipitates Armageddon is given by a mechanically activated recording.
It is possible to dismiss Mr. Roshwald’s seven levels as an intricate engineer’s hell, but his prophecy of official, secret, irrevocable decision reached without brains or conscience because no one person is responsible for anything but material success in a limited area conjures up a spirit which is much harder to exorcise. The book is a powerful, intelligent evocation of the great goblin of our times. It is dedicated “To Dwight and Nikita.”
THE MASS MURDER MONSTER
COMMANDANT OF AUSCHWITZ (World, $4.50) is the autobiography of RUDOLF HOESS, who by his own admission arranged, “on orders received from Himmler,” the murder by gas of at least two million people during the years when he commanded that infamous prison camp. At the end of the war he was caught and turned over to the Poles, and after certain legal formalities, they took him back to Auschwitz and hanged him.
His memoirs, written in jail at the request of his captors, make something of a companion piece to Level 7. They have in general the same tone of commonplace reasonableness, they make the same disclaimer of responsibility for the policy of the authorities, and offer the same excuse of obedience to military commands. There is even a parallel between Hoess’s hankering to become a farmer and X-127’s regret that he will never see sunlight again. Parts of these memoirs were published in Poland in 1951, and it is possible that Mr. Roshwald, a Pole by birth, has read them and made use of them. Whether he did or not is, of course, unimportant in relation to his artistic achievement, but it is interesting to find Hoess providing real-life evidence of the attitude Mr. Roshwald describes in fiction.
Considered by itself, Commandant of Auschwitz is a gruesomely fascinating book which never reveals as much as the reader hopes it will. Hoess died an unrepentant Nazi, convinced that the methods rather than the aims of the party had been at fault. Consequently, he never thought it necessary to discuss his reasons for becoming a Nazi or for joining the SS, although it seems possible that the latter move was partly financial. He had been involved in a farming venture, described with an evasiveness that suggests it was not wildly successful. His childhood memories and his experiences in World War I are not idyllic, but other men have fared as badly and remained men. Hoess wound up at Auschwitz, however, where incompetent subordinates, unsympathelic superiors, lack of materials, and government red tape bedeviled him and made his task of mass murder tiresomely difficult.
Assuming that the translation is accurate, which seems entirely probable, since it was done by Constantine Fitzgibbon, Hoess describes his career in a stolid, flat-footed way with little attention to what he felt about any of it. He is full of opinions about how to organize a prison and strong on the value of work and domestic affection, but there is very little of the kind of emotional detail that might provide a clue to his success as a monster. Perhaps the lack is in itself the clue. Hoess professes to have suffered from repressed sympathy while ordering Jewish children into the gas chambers, but the chief impression conveyed by his narrative is of an immense coldness of spirit. Combined with his fussbudget conscientiousness, this reptilian chill may indeed account for Auschwitz.
THIS TRADE OF GUNRUNNING
ERIC AMBLER’S latest thriller, PASSAGE OF ARMS (Knopf, S3.95), is a gaudy bit of uproar which begins in Malaya and rattles all around the Far East. The central character is not really a character at all but a cache of weapons, and the story is simply the successive and increasingly complicated maneuvers required to turn these objects into money
Mr. Ambler’s guns attract a fine collection of people, all of them sticky-fingered and most of them with no previous experience in gunrunning. It proves to be no trade for amateurs. The Bengali clerk who finds the guns in a Malayan jungle is a shrewd lad, but he has to resort to a Chinese trader with outside connections. The connections are all hungry relatives, and one of them is an obsessive gambler on Something called “the pickle market.”
The pickle marketer, a splendidly muddleheaded rascal himself, collects a British ex-officer who never was a gentleman, and between them they hash up negotiations with a respectable American who has been fool enough to front for the affair. The British authorities sniff nervously about the edges of the enterprise, and the prospective purchasers of the guns have an inadequate intelligence department.
It all boils up into a bloody battle full of suspense and excitement in Mr. Ambler’s best style. In addition to the pleasure of a good tale well told, the book offers the unfashionable surprise of a United States consular official who is honest, intelligent. and efficient, and as bonus, a ship’s passenger who is, in an unpretentious way, a superb study of the kind of unbearable woman against whom no specific charge can be brought. This is a tricky type to portray, but Mr. Ambler does her malicious justice.
LITERATURE AND OUR LIVES
J. B. PRIESTLEY’S LITERATURE AND WESTERN MAN (Harper, $6.95) is an ambitious attempt to decide where we should go by considering where, in literature, we have been during the past five centuries. Mr. Priestley believes that “ours is an age of supreme crisis, when the most desperate decisions have to be made, and that some account of Western Man, in terms of the literature he has created and enjoyed, might help us to understand ourselves . . . and to realise where we are and how we have arrived here.”
Taking the appearance of movable type as a starting point, Mr. Priestley discusses various authors, examining their points of view and considering how much of their society and which segments each one represented. He keeps his material, which comes from all of Europe, the British Isles, and eventually the United States, pretty well under control until he reaches the nineteenth century, when the enormous number of literary schools and movements reduces him to a chaos of name dropping. In a way, this situation supports one of the points Mr. Priestley is trying to make, which is that modern society has splintered into groups which have no mutual understanding and hold no common belief through which they might achieve one.
Although not new, this is a perfectly sound point, which is a fair description of too much of what Mr. Priestley has to say in this book. His main argument is obscured by his desire to get every reputable author in somewhere, regardless of the pertinence of the man’s work or the originality of Mr. Priestley’s ideas about it, and in the book’s final pages, the author positively works against himself by cluttering his discussion with descriptions of authors which are necessarily too brief to prove anything.
Mr. Priestley argues, if I have trailed him successfully through the undergrowth of peripheral reference, that in the past the life of Western man was governed by an even balance between his conscious mind and his unconscious desires, a state of things represented by Montaigne, Cervantes, Rabelais, and Shakespeare, to name only the high points of the list. In the eighteenth century, conscious mind acquired complete control of life and literature and was, by inevitable reaction, eventually repudiated and succeeded by an upsurge of the unconscious. This brings us to the romantic movement and lands Mr. Priestley in a quandary, for he identifies the great international figures of the period as Byron, Goethe, and Walter Scott, and it is difficult to rig any one of these gentlemen as an embodiment of the unconscious drives of Western man. Mr. Priestley escapes his problem by deciding that henceforth literature does not truly represent Western man at all, but the exploration of the individual unconscious on one hand and official propriety and practicality on the other. In our own time, literature has been reduced to excavating obscure recesses in the minds of individual authors, a process of no value or interest to vast portions of the public.
It is never clear in Mr. Priestley’s discussion whether he thinks literature shapes the conduct of Western man or reflects it. nor does he offer any reasons for such phenomena as the preponderance of conscious intellect in the eighteenth century. Since he has no coherent theory to account for the direction of Western man in the past, he has no basis from which to predict his course in the future and, having announced that things are in a bad way, can only advocate a return to religion. On internal evidence, what Mr. Priestley means by “religion” is a spirit of humanistic good will reinforced by some generally acceptable myth, but officially he does not commit himself so definitely. He has no idea what religion may prevail, for “we have no religion and. inside or outside literature, man feels homeless, helpless, and in despair.”
Mr. Priestley hopes for the appearance of some belief which, generally held, will enable Western man to make decisions about his society and conduct with assurance that they are justified, and if one agrees with him that lack of such belief is the basis of all our modern ills, one can only wish that his hope may be fulfilled. I think, however, that at least half of the book that Mr. Priestley has devoted to this good cause is superfluous and that all of it would have benefited by more quotation from the authors in question and fewer comparisons like that of Shelley to Ariel, which has long since done its duty in every freshman survey course in English literature from here to Timbuktu and has earned a decent retirement.
BY HORSE AND MULE
Like most of FREY STARK’S travel books, RIDING TO THE TIGRIS (Harcourt, Brace, $5.00) reveals an exotic landscape through the eyes of a learned, sympathetic observer who also happens to be a fine photographer. Miss Stark is a veteran traveler in the Middle East, familiar with the language and fond of the people and able to carry the whole complicated history of the region, from Noah to Xenophon to yesterday, in her head.
Her latest book describes a journey by horse and mule through a range of mountains close to the eastern frontier of Turkey. Starting east of Lake Van. she circled south and west through country that only a few years ago was a no man’s land of tribal warfare and came out, as she had expected to do. at a town on the Tigris River. Very few Europeans had ever been through the area, the scenery was rumored to be remarkable, and Miss Stark had not seen the place. These were reasons enough to take her there, despite difficulties and the astonishment of the Turkish authorities. They could not understand why anyone, least of all a woman, would willingly go and look at rocky gorges and cantankerous Kurds.
As such trips go. Miss Stark’s was unadventurous. Her horse tried to fall over a precipice only once, the scenery justified its reputation, the Kurds were charming, and the Turkish authorities, panicked by mystification, confiscated most of her films. The loss of the films, although it infuriated her at the time, makes little difference to the book. Some pictures survived, and, in any case, Miss Stark is a master of description. She can convey anything from the general contour of a landscape, the quality of light and texture of air to the smallest details of plants and animals.
Short of learning Turkish and buying a ticket to Bitlis, the best thing a would-be traveler can do about the Hakkiari hills is read Riding to the Tigris.
A DASH OF ARSENIC A DAY
WILLIAM LONGGOOD’S THK POISONS IN YOUR FOOD (Simon and Schuster, $3.95) is a lively journalist’s overhauling of the activities of the Food and Drug Administration. Full of medical quotations and sometimes repetitious, the book is nevertheless interesting and alarming reading, demonstrating that the great cranberry war of last Thanksgiving was merely a minor skirmish in a steady campaign to dose the population with bug killers, weed killers, chemical imitations of natural food elements, detergents, mineral oil, embalming fluid, arsenic, and a wide variety of substances known to cause cancer in laboratory animals.
To do them justice, the chemical companies that manufacture these substances and the people who incorporate them into meat, milk, baked goods, fruits, and vegetables are not inspired by any hatred of their fellow citizens. They merely wish to make more money with less effort. For this reason, they will resort to any concoction that seems likely to produce a larger crop, a heavier animal, or a product that can survive packing, shipping, and sitting three months on a grocery shelf.
The FDA is supposed, it is generally thought, to prevent the use for such purposes of substances that are in any way dangerous to those who ultimately eat the treated food. Mr. Longgood has collected plenty of evidence that the FDA cannot and will not do anything of the kind. Its staff is inadequate to check everything on the market, its laboratory facilities are so unequal to the demands upon them that the department frequently has to depend for estimates of the effect of a new chemical on the research staff of the company that manufactured the substance in the first place, and the officials in charge of the department are political appointees rather than experts in nutrition and toxicology.
Summing up recent legislation in the food and drug field, Mr. Longgood explains that, in plain English, it allows a manufacturer to put any poison he pleases into any food he markets as long as nobody actually drops dead in his tracks from eating the stuff. Since slow poisoning by a variety of chemicals is hard to diagnose and no one product is likely to cause sudden death, everybody except the consumer can now feel safe and happy. It may be argued that Mithridates died old, but he didn’t have to contend with beta-naphthylamine, carboxymethylcellulose, or glycerides, and when he ate arsenic, he knew it. The only readers likely to be cheered by Mr. Longgood’s book are those seriously worried by the prospect of overpopulation.