Books: Life can be beautiful, but only on a small scale

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The Independent Culture
Tzvetan Todorov offers a wide range of testimony from Nazi and Soviet institutions of oppression to provide a context for a bold examination of the human capacity for moral life. Readers seeking an account of the Holocaust, albeit from a fresh and compelling angle, should immediately be warned. This is far less a narrative, far more a fairly full-scale philosophical exploration. Accepted as such, it is bold, honest and exceedingly welcome.

Todorov provides a daring challenge for humanity as a whole. After a brief foray into Polish wartime heroics, he sets out to establish that Hitler's and Stalin's camps are a most appropriate starting point for a new quest for 20th-century morality. Choices of actions, applicable to the universality of human existence, are more visible in an environment far starker than "the humdrum of our daily lives".

That moral sphere includes us all. In a century where heroes are, he says, degraded to the extent of representation by Chaplin's tramp and Beckett's hobos, he feels "great men" such as Churchill and De Gaulle, while appropriately placed in positions of supreme power during a justifiable war such as that against Hitler, should be promptly returned thereafter to obscurity; democracy "functions quite well without them". Some may disagree. But whatever the arguments that may ensue over that, his outlook on humanity as a whole is not optimistic. He makes an early distinction between "vital values" - directed towards furthering one's well-being, - and "moral" ones, telling us "that staying human is more important than staying alive".

And so to the camps. Todorov fascinates us as he develops his theme that humanity blooms in the harshest adversity; although, slightly disconcertingly, it is hard to glean just how high a proportion of inmates nurtured such nobility. There existed, nonetheless, a plucky maintenance of moral standards within at least parts of the imprisoned community. While pilfering from the camp itself is of course applauded, theft from one's peers is deplored. There is the special sweetness of seemingly widespread cooperation, where possible, to care for infants.

Between the authorities and the oppressed, humanity also makes some deft, daring cameos. Compassion rears its magnificent head; a favourite yarn must be the one describing the Soviet overseer who cares for his inmate work party so much that he deserts his post and sets off to buy them food. Ultimately they in turn start to worry about him. The most splendid phenomenon of all is the resistance to the crackdown by camp authorities on inmates' reading; those in charge recognise all too well the deliverance of the soul - at least temporarily - in literary escape. One spirited soul overcomes the resulting book bans by reciting from memory complete works of heroes from Pushkin to Pasternak - and saves herself from a train-ride in irons to Vladivostock by chanting hour after hour of poetry.

Maintenance of dignity against all the odds is truly captivating. Some prisoners make every effort to preserve personal hygiene. Best of all, there is defiance. Some refuse to toady to their masters. One heroine waits until her fellow inmates are assembled to watch her ascend the gallows. Only then does she give the system a final robustly satisfying kick by slashing her wrists with a hitherto concealed razor blade before they can get her first.

But the oppressors fight back. Sections on de-personalisation and the enjoyment of power contrast vividly with earlier flashes of hope. An intimate account covers the mechanisation of not just murderous practices but entire mentalities. Sheer numbers help: it is harder to kill two than 2,000. A suitably gruesome survey is made of Eichmann's spiritual deformities; there is also a treatment - possibly too lenient for some - of Albert Speer, who "could not help finding aesthetic pleasure" in Berlin's demolition by Allied bombers. He had hopes to be "among the most famous architects in history".

Various minor qualifications should be levelled against an otherwise outstanding work. His painstaking precision in constructing arguments sits rather awkwardly with some bold assertions. The quest for power, Todorov notes glumly, is today "not a way of doing good or of serving some ideal. Power is sought for its own sake: it is an end not a means." Whatever the horrors of the camps, it is hard to believe either that such stand-alone thirsts for power did not exist before, or that all modern power is sought for this reason.

It does seem unfortunate that Todorov's text, written in 1991, translated into English in 1996, is only now appearing in a British edition. Much has changed. Hitler's camps remain extinct. The Gulag, however, is beginning to make a rather chilling comeback among Russia's upheavals. Given this and other threats - nuclear proliferation and environmental decay among them - it is tempting to disagree with his belief that small acts of kindness - "the banality of good" - will on their own bring global happiness. His pleading is eloquent, but given the extent of these menaces, his solutions seem perilously insufficient.