What impression does Norman Mailer's first novel in more than a decade leave? It is probably irony. Promoted as an exploration of the struggle between good and evil, The Castle in the Forest comes off making Adolf Hitler, a poster child of evil, little more than relatively commonplace. And while Mailer writes as well as ever, his talents largely serve to make staying with a plodding story less trying.
Mailer's novel purports to use Hitler's life from birth to approximately age 16 as a vehicle to explore the nature of evil. Yet most of the book focuses on Hitler's father, Alois, including his uncertain parentage and the extent to which that rendered Adolf "a First-Degree Incestuary." Throw in extensive discussion of beekeeping, a lengthy diversion about the coronation of Tsar Nicholas and a seeming fascination with excrement and sex and you begin to wonder where the battle between good and evil went.
The story is told by D.T., a middle-ranking demon among Satan's minions. He is called D.T. because, when we first meet him, he inhabits the body of an SS intelligence officer named Dieter. Satan, usually called "the Maestro" or occasionally "the Evil One," assigned the as yet unborn Adolf as D.T.'s client, a "project" D.T. is to monitor. Yet the ultimate message seems to be that those imbued with evil of Hitlerian proportions are born with it and what occurs in their formative years merely fine tunes and reinforces the necessary traits.
Referred to as "Adi," the nickname his mother gave him, Adolf's childhood comes off as relatively normal, albeit with somewhat Freudian overtones. Even when events occur that seemingly give the reader clues to Adi's actions as an adult, Mailer immediately discounts them. For example, at one point Alois, who takes up beekeeping in his retirement, destroys one of his bee colonies for fear it is diseased and the disease those bees carry will spread to his other bee colony. He gasses the colony, telling Adi, "In nature, there is no mercy for the weak." That night, D.T. uses the occasion to prepare a "dream-etching" that leads Adi to count and lay out thousands of dead bees in his dreams. Despite the potential relevance we might see to the Holocaust, D.T. writes, "I would warn the reader not to make too much of the gassing or the body count." Instead, this is merely a "dot" upon Adi's pscyhe. Similarly, when D.T. describes a large swastika cut into an arched gate at the Benedictine monastery where Adi is a member of the children's choir, he immediately tells the reader not to make too much of it because the swastika "was subtly carved." Why, then, is it mentioned if it is immediately deemed irrelevant to Adi's life and development?
These passages are also seem indicative that at times when D.T. addresses the reader directly it is Mailer piercing the partition D.T. creates between him and the reader. D.T. tells us "there is no clear classification for this book. It is more than a memoir and certainly has to be most curious as a biography since it is as privileged as a novel." Given the lengthy bibliography at the end of the book, it sounds as if Mailer is telling us this is a biography cast in the form of a novel. Likewise, D.T. occasionally seems to channel views reminiscent of points Mailer has previously made in interviews and essays. Thus, D.T. writes of statesmen who become successful leaders of a country at war:
They now posses the mightiest of all social engines of psychic numbification — patriotism! That is still the most dependable instrument for guiding the masses, although it may yet be replaced by revealed religion. We love fundamentalists. Their faith offers us every promise of developing into the final weapon of mass destruction.
As he did in The Gospel According to the Son, Mailer posits a universe in which God is far from omnipotent and in a timeless and unending war with Satan, one in which neither ever gains a decisive hand. Here, God is referred to as "D.K.," for the Dummkopf (whether the narrator's insistence on using two-letter abbreviations for Dieter and Dummkopf is part of some demonic project is unclear). "God may be powerful, but He is not All-Powerful. Hardly so," D.T. says. In fact, God is called the Dummkopf because "given what He could have achieved, this is what He is."
Yet although references to the struggle between D.K. and the Evil One are common, they never really directly relate to Adi's story. Instead, the book ends up a well-written but rather mundane work of historical fiction that is far more about the life and times of Alois and Adi's mother, Klara, than why Adi became what we know today. In fact, early in the book D.T. tells us he was present and part of Adi's conception and Klara "knew she was giving herself over to the Devil." If that is the case, the reader must question the purpose of 400 more pages about Adi's family and youth.
Yet the ultimate irony may be revealed by an item in J.M. Coetzee's recent evaluation of the book. According to Coetzee, Mailer has been critical of Hannah Arendt describing the handiwork of Adolf Eichmann as indicative of "the banality of evil." Mailer supposedly has called such a view "vastly worse" than there actually being a struggle between good and evil. Given that The Castle in the Forest is promoted as an exploration of that struggle, it ultimately comes off as an almost banal rendition of not only that topic but evil itself.