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This is a small book in which Mr. Steiner grinds a couple of big axes: his views on the Holocaust and on the nature of language. The plot of the novel is essentially a reverse Heart Of Darkness, where the Kurtz character is literally Adolph Hitler, now 90 years old and hiding far up the Amazon, and the Marlowe is a band of Jewish mercenaries have been sent to bring him back to Israel to stand trial for his atrocities. The mission has been driven obsessively by Emmanuel Lieber, who is not with the party but gets an extended soliloquy in the middle of the book that allows him to indict Hitler and delineate his crimes in detail. While the retrieval trudges through the jungle and the men fret about ever getting back to civilization with their prize alive, we meet characters from a variety of other nations who all have their own reasons for worrying about what might happen if the Fuhrer ever takes the stand. Russians, Germans, etc., all dread what could be exposed about their own inadequacies in dealing with Nazi Germany and the aftermath of the war.

Just this much would have been enough of a risk for any author. The use of such a heinous historical figure is something many avoid, tending to focus instead on secondary characters. And, indeed, A.H. is silent or nearly so for most of the book. But then, at its end, Mr. Steiner gives him an extended speech that provoked understandably hostile reactions from the critics, especially because it is not followed by a systematic answer. Hitler ticks off four points in his defense: first, that his racial science had its origins in Judaism, with its notion of a Chosen people; second, that Judaism and the Jewish Christ imposed morality on mankind; third, that Stalin was a greater mass murderer; and, fourth, that it was his actions that birthed the state of Israel after the war. It is, of course, the first charge that provoked the greatest revulsion. It always would have, but especially nearly 50 years ago when Israel seemed to be a semi-secular project and Judaism itself to have foregone any lingering tribal nature. One wonders if it would be quite as inflammatory today, when the Orthodox and Religious Zionism have revived the notion of Jews as a distinct race, and that a race with special standing in the eyes of God?

At any rate, let the NY Times review represent the horrified criticism of the time:
But Hitler is permitted the last word. If the Jews have one arpeggio, in the middle of this novel, Hitler is allowed the other, and the last, after too many hate-filled trills. According to Mr. Steiner's Hitler, the Jews invented monotheism and guilt and a 'chosen people' at Sinai, the 'slave church' and 'the terrible sweetness of Christ' at Nazareth and 'the litany of hatred' with Karl Marx. The Jews, in other words, gave Hitler his best ideas. In return, Hitler gave them Israel.

This, frankly, is obscene. Dostoyevsky didn't end 'The Brothers Karamazov' with the tale of the Grand Inquisitor. Mr. Steiner, by choosing to end 'The Portage' with something very much like that brutal rationalization (and by omitting the kiss), not only denies the power of art to arrange and transcend, but he makes me sick to my stomach.
    -REVIEW: of The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H by George Steiner (John Leonard, NY Times)

Now let's consider this is from Mr. Steiner's own essay on the post-war German author Gunter Grass:
The neurotic conjecture of some secret, foredoomed relationship between Nazi and Jew, of a hidden fraternity or mutual fascination deeper than the outward show of loathing and destruction, crops up tenaciously. We find it in the suspicion, argued with varying degrees of historical finesse, that Nazism derived from Judaism its own dogma of a “chosen race” and of a millennial, messianic nationalism. It emerges in Hannah Arendt's macabre reading of Eichmann's “Zionism,” and in the persistent belief or allegation that certain eminent Nazis—Heydrich, Rosenberg, Hitler himself—had traces of Jewish descent.

This intimation feeds on two deep-buried sources. Jewish masochism at times inclines to the notion that there was an occult rationale for the catastrophe, a savage yet somehow natural rebuke to the proud hopes fostered by Jewish assimilation into German culture. The German or the outsider, on the other hand, yields to the obscure imagining that German Jewry in some way brought the whirlwind on itself, that the temptations it offered to bestiality were too subtle, too intimate to be resisted. So utter a process of recognition and extermination must have involved some hidden complicity between torturer and victim. For all men kill the Jew they love.
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Nerve of Gunter Grass: Gunter Grass is an industry (George Steiner, May 1964, Commentary)

Surely we can say that the author knew exactly what he was doing when he allowed Hitler to mount his case and that he was hardly endorsing any of the points. But the ambiguity is only heightened by the one character who does answer the diatribe: a native shouts, "Proved!." Is this intended to be a judgment that Hitler has proved his case? Well, the character who responds is named, Teku, Hebrew for "The question remains unanswered." So, we are left with an open-ended ending. Perhaps what Mr,. Steiner intended was more that we continue to question how we all permitted the Holocaust to happen. And this worthwhile conversation does continue.


Grade: (C+)


See also:

George Steiner (2 books reviewed)
Historical Fiction
George Steiner Links:

    -CONTEMPORARY WRITERS: George Steiner (British Council on the Arts)
    -George Steiner (Wikipedia)
    -George Steiner (NNDB)
    -The Papers of George Steiner (Janus)
    -ENTRY: George Steiner American literary critic (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
    -OBIT: George Steiner, influential culture critic, dies aged 90: The multilingual scholar was renowned for broadening English readers’ horizons and for his passionate moral engagement (Alison Flood, 4 Feb 2020, The Guardian)
    -OBIT: George Steiner, Prodigious Literary Critic, Dies at 90: He ranged over subjects like the origins of speech, the moral power of literature and the future of truth — and sometimes drew criticism himself. (NYB Times, 2/03/20)
    -OBIT: George Steiner, renowned literary critic, dies at 90 (Emily Langer, February 5, 2020, Washingtton Post)
    -OBIT: George Steiner: Literary critic whose influence went well beyond academia: A scholar and polymath of rare depth and range, he was a staunch defender of ‘high’ literature and philosophy (Emily Langer, 11 March 2020, Independent)
    -OBIT: George Steiner obituary: Polymath devoted to an ideal of literacy as private reading and to exploring the relationship between the Holocaust and civilisation (Eric Homberger, 2/05/20, The Guardian)
    -OBIT: Eminent man of letters George Steiner dead at age 90 (HILLEL ITALIE, February 3, 2020, AP)
    -OBIT: George Steiner, essayist whose family fled France to escape the Nazis, dies at 90: Polymath's work showed a huge breadth of study and knowledge (Jack Sommers, FEBRUARY 04, 2020, The Jewish Chronicle)
    -OBIT: George Steiner: Holocaust survivor and literary critic dies aged 90 (BBC, 3 February 2020)
    -OBIT: Professor George Steiner obituary: Intellectual polymath who wrote about the relationship between language, literature and society and the impact of the Holocaust (The Times uk, 2/04/20)
    -OBIT: Obituary: George Steiner, writer, critic, polyglot and polymath (The Scotsman, 2/25/20)
    -TRIBUTE: A very English intellectual: For all his European frame of reference George Steiner stayed in Cambridge for a very good reason (Daniel Johnson, March 2020, The Critic)
    -TRIBUTE: George Steiner appreciation: a stellar polymath: The Observer columnist remembers his Cambridge friend, the academic, critic and formidable intellect, whose scholarship did not always find favour with his university peers (John Naughton, 8 Feb 2020, The Observer)
    -TRIBUTE: The Seriousness of George Steiner (Adam Gopnik, February 5, 2020, The New Yorker)
    -TRUBUTE: A tribute to George Steiner (David Herman, 3/08/21, The Article)
    -TRIBUTE: THE JUDAISM OF GEORGE STEINER (J. J. Kimche, December 2020, First Things)
    -TRIBUTE: The Last Encyclopaedic Mind: An original thinker, George Steiner’s mark on our intellectual scene is indelible. (Ramin Jahanbegloo, February 16, 2020, Indian Express)
    -TRIBUTE: George Steiner: Remembrancer (Catherine Chatterley, FEB 4, 2020, Times of Israel)
    -EXCERPT: George Steiner: In Bluebeard's Castle. Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One of Errata: An Examined Life by George Steiner
    -ESSAY: The Unfinished: Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities (George Steiner, April 17, 1995, The New Yorker)
    -LECTURE: George Steiner Lecture - Part One (University of Edinburgh)
    -LECTURE: F.E.L. Priestley Lectures: George Steiner (on IDEAS, 24, 31 May and 7 June 1996)
    -ESSAY: THE SCANDAL OF THE NOBEL PRIZE (George Steiner, 9/30/84, NY Times)
    -EXCHANGE: What Shall the Responsible Intellectual Do? (Noam Chomsky debates with George Steiner, March 23, 1967, The New York Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Philosophical Investigations by Richard Wall (George Steiner, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Vermeer and the Delft School by Walter Liedtke and Vermeer and Painting in Delft by Axel Ruger (George Steiner, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, trans. Richard Zenith (George Steiner, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Hegel: A Biography by Terry Pinkard (George Steiner, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind by Noam Chomsky (George Steiner, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Identity by Milan Kundera translated by Linda Asher (George Steiner, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany by Jonathan Petropoulos (George Steiner, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of THE ORDER OF THINGS: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. By Michel Foucault (George Stiner, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: On Paul Goodman (George Steiner, August 1963, Commentary)
    -ESSAY: A Kind of Survivor (George Steiner, February 1965, Commentary)
    -ESSAY: The Hollow Miracle: Notes on the German Language (George Steiner, February 18, 1960, The Reporter)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Nerve of Gunter Grass: Gunter Grass is an industry (George Steiner, May 1964, Commentary)
    -REVIEW: of Walter Benjamin's Selected Writings Vol 2 1927-1934 (George Steiner, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Roots of Revolution, by Franco Venturi (George Steiner, October 13, 1960, The Reporter)
    -REVIEW: of Baedekers of the Heart: A Time in Rome, by Elizabeth Bowen (George Steiner, 3/17, 1960, The Reporter)
    -REVIEW: of The Abruzzo Trilogy, by Ignazio Silone (George Steiner, 8/04, 1960, The Reporter)
    -REVIEW: of Love and Death in the American Novel, by Leslie Fiedler (George Steiner, 5/12, 1960, The Reporter)
    -REVIEW: of We, by Yevgeny I. Zamyatin (George Steiner, 12/24/59, The Reporter)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Book (George Steiner, The Reporter, March 16, 1961)
    -ARCHIVES: George Steiner (NY Review of Books)
    -ARTICLE: Cambridge academic says he would not tolerate Jamaican neighbours: A Cambridge academic and novelist was at the centre of a race row after saying that he would not be able to tolerate living next door to Jamaican neighbours "playing reggae all day". (Aislinn Simpson and Jessica Salter, 31 August 2008, The Telegraph)
    -PROFILE: Out of touch, but not a racist: George Steiner's ill-judged comments have landed him in hot water, but we shouldn't let them blind us to his genius (lindsay Johns, 9/03/08, The Guardian)
    -PROFILE: Il postino: Multilingual scholar George Steiner has for decades aroused suspicions for being 'a touch dazzling'. He has now made his peace with British anti-intellectualism. (Christopher Tayler, 4/08/18, The Guardian)
    -ARTICLE: George Steiner named Norton Professor (Harvard Gazette, 3/15/01)
    -AWARD: Literary Critic George Steiner wins Truman Capote Award (Stanford Online)
    -PROFILE: George Steiner (Jeet Heer, September 16, 2004, National Post)
    -PROFILE: George and his dragons: Once spurned by the academic establishment, this controversial critic is dismissed by some as a pretentious namedropper. To others he is a polymath champion of European high culture. (Maya Jaggi, March 17, 2001, The Guardian)
-ESSAY: The Critic’s Critic: George Steiner and the art of hopeful failure (Richard Hughes Gibson, 12/19/21, Hedehog Review)
    -ESSAY: The End of Endings (Richard John Neuhaus, August/September 2001, First Things)
    -ESSAY: George Steiner and His Heretical Essays in Modern Times (M Kleprlík · 2021, American & British Studies Annual)[PDF]
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Real Presence and the Conscience of Words: Language and Repetition in George Steiner's "Portage to San Cristóbal of A. H." (Michael A. Young, Spring 1992, Studies in Fiction)
    -ESSAY: Our George Steiner Problem -- and Mine (Lee Siegel, March 12, 2009, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: George Steiner's Either/Or: A Response (CYNTHIA OZICK, Fall 1980-Winter 1981, Salmagundi)
    -ESSAY: Humanizing the Humanities: Some Reflections on George Steiner's "Brutal Paradox" (Clarence J. Karier, Summer 1990, The Journal of Aesthetic Education)
    -ARCHIVES: "george Steiner (The Guardian)
    -TRIBUTE: In Memoriam: George Steiner (Kenyon Review)
    -ESSAY: George Steiner’s Vapid Excuse-Making for Anti-Semitism (Mosaic)
    -ESSAY: Steiner on Screen (DAVID HERMAN, Salmagundi)
    -ESSAY: What if Mossad Agents Had Caught Hitler in the Amazon Rain Forest? [In Memory of George Steiner] (Arie M Dubnov, 2020, Ha'aretz)
    -ARCHIVES: George Steiner (London Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES: George Steiner (
    -REVIEW: of The Sporting Scene (MetaChess, 16. Oktober 2002)
    -REVIEW: of The Portage to San Cristobel of A.H. (Morris Dickstein, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Portage to San Cristobel of A.H. (John Leonard, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H by George Steiner (John Leonard, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H (Morris Dickstein, NY Times Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Portage to San Cristobal (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Portage to San Cristobal (Joseph G. Harrison CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of Portage to San Cristobal (Honey & Locusts)
    -REVIEW: of Portage to San Cristobal (Michael Fitzgerald, Worldview)
    -REVIEW: of Portage to San Cristobal (Otto Friedrich, TIME)
    -REVIEW: of Language and Silence (David Crystal)
    -REVIEW: of My Unwritten Books by George Steiner (Stephen Moss, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of My Unwritten Books (Victorie Siegal, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of My Unwritten Books (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of George Steiner, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (Robert S. Leventhal, Responses to the Holocaust: A Hypermedia Sourcebook for the Humanities)
    -REVIEW: of Catherine D. Chatterley: Disenchantment: George Steiner and the Meaning of Western Civilization after Auschwitz (Review of Politics)


-The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. (Holocaust Theater Catalog)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Ventriloquial Paradox: George Steiner's ‘The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H.’ (Nick White, February 2002, New Theatre Quarterly)
    -PLAY REVIEW: The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H. (Mel Gussow, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Errata by George Steiner (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW: of Errata: An Examined Life by George Steiner (Anthony Gottlieb, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Errata (Rex Murphy, The Globe & Mail)
    -REVIEW: of Errata (Scott McLemee, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Grammars of Creation by George Steiner (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW: of Grammars of Creation By George Steiner (Roger Kimball, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Grammars of Creation (F.H. Buckley, Crisis)
    -REVIEW: of Grammars of Creation (Roy Porter, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Grammars of Creation (Adam Phillips, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Portage to San Cristobal (Jonathan Bowden, Counter-Currents)
    -REVIEW: of Portage to San Cristobal (Zachary Solomon, JTA)
    -REVIEW: of Portage to San Cristobal (Lawrence L. Langer, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW: of No Passions Spent by George Steiner (Michael Dirda, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Reading George Steiner. Edited By Nathan A Scott, Jr and Ronald A Sharp (TRACY E MARTIN, Literature and Theology)
    -REVIEW: of No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1995 By George Steiner (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of No Passion Spent (Kenneth Baker, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Proofs And Three Parables By George Steiner (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Real Presences By George Steiner (Eva Hoffman, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Lessons of the Masters: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures 2001-2002 by George Steiner (Stephen Romer, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Lessons of the Masters (Salley Vickers, The Observer )
    -REVIEW: of Lessons of the Masters (Joseph Epstein, Weekly Standard)
    -REVIEW: of Lessons of the Masters (Edward Skidelsky, New Statesman)

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