The Castle in the Forest by Norman Mailer

I’m a late bloomer in many respects: this is my first Norman Mailer book. So kindly excuse me if I’m bowled over by the complicated mind behind the pen.

The Castle in the Forest is a fictional biography of Adolf Hitler. You know, the one who was infamously held responsible for, amongst other misdeeds, World War II and the Holocaust. So who is more apt to narrate the origins of Adolf than the devil himself?

The narrator is Dieter, who assumes the body of an SS man, but is actually the employee of Satan (called the Maestro in this book).  Tasked to look after the development of young Adolf (little Adi), Dieter traces back to Hitler’s ancestors succumbing to the primitive impulses and instant gratifications that primordially created Adolf. From then on, the narrative meanders through cradle and toddler-hood amidst the humdrum of domestic Austrian middle-class family life and innocuously accounts incidents that cumulatively reflect the primal fears, delusions and dysfunctionality of the family. If there is any insidious foreshadow of the extreme excesses that is to come out of little Adi when he grows up, it is not apparent from the narrative itself; the reader extrapolates from what he/she already knows. Certainly, do not expect an answer to the question of nature or nurture. That is not the point of the narrative; in any event, if either or both were to do all the work, what would have been Dieter’s purpose as the devious caretaker? Half way through, the narrative wanders off slovenly into another assignment received by Dieter (the coronation of Nicholas II in Russia). After being re-assigned back to a tween Adolf, Dieter was later on assigned out again, this time purportedly so that the Maestro himself can look after Adolf specially. In true protean form, Dieter sells out his boss by telling this Hitler story behind the Maestro’s back and goes to great lengths to cover his traces. He even contemplates switching sides and batting for the Maestro’s foe – the “Dummkopf” – instead, for in Dieter’s own words “is it not also true that one cannot find a devil who will not work both sides of the street?”

By all means, Dieter’s account of the Hitler family story is ironic, blackly funny and philosophical even if twisted. But more interesting (or more unsympathetic, depending on your point of view) than the Hitlers themselves, is this wholly unreliable, multifariously complex and thoroughly malleable narrator in the form of Dieter.

Conclusion: this is not bed-time reading for the faint hearted. Still, the curious-minded will not be deterred from taking the plunge.

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2 thoughts on “The Castle in the Forest by Norman Mailer

  1. ShimonZ

    I haven’t read the book because of my extreme sensitivity to the subject. But knowing Mailer’s writing fairly well, I believe that he intended to write about the nature of evil, as part of our understanding of mankind. For centuries, we’ve heard the black and white representation of good and evil. Mailer is famous for his search for essence, and I imagine that he tries to find the subtle traces of evil in the everyday experiences of every man.

    Reply

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