BOOK REVIEW / One was human, wasn't one?: 'Serenity House' - Christopher Hope: Macmillan, 14.99

Paul Taylor
Saturday 12 September 1992 23:02

THE epigraph to Christopher Hope's new novel comes from the 1937 edition of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage, a volume which Hope's protagonist, the octogenarian Max Montfalcon, still pedantically (and repeatedly) swears by. Not that his own use of English is entirely above suspicion. He can't pronouce the first 'w' in wallow and speaks of 'tea and bisquits'. At times, too, his idioms are fractionally off-target, as when he describes wartime Poland as 'a racial haystack. Full of ethnic splinters.'

Small wonder, in fact, that this ardent monarchist and Little-Englander should have a special reverence for Earl Mountbatten and the Duke of Edinburgh, for his Englishness is as acquired as theirs. It becomes increasingly evident that, in an earlier incarnation, Max Montfalcon was Maximilian von Falkenberg, a brilliant German anthropologist, and that at a Polish 'facility' in 1942 he conducted research into genetic racial differences, possibly killing (it's never made clear) thousands of Jews and Poles with lethal phenol injections.

Hope's book falls into a genre which cynics have dubbed the 'designer death-camp novel' or 'Holocaust chic', though it's a crude form of categorisation that can lump together Martin Amis's risky but honourable time-rewinding take on Auschwitz in Time's Arrow and the suspect, let's- 'identify' strategies of a book like Emily Prager's Eve's Tattoo. In Hope's clever, black moral farce, the view we get of the Holocaust is provocatively refracted in more ways than one. It's not just that we see it through the eyes of an old, incontinent 'Englishman' who can only remember what he remembers as having happened to a German friend, von F. It's also that strange echoes of Max's past are stirred by his new surroundings in Serenity House, 'North London's Premier Eventide Refuge'. At first, these are just stray throbs of recognition, as when the piled-up leather in the luggage depository evokes 'the memorial mountain of dead skins'. But as the staff step up their quick-despatch policy of 'Death with Dignity' and mercy-killing veers, by bureaucratic momentum, into programmatic murder, the confusion between the two communities is savagely heightened.

An alarmist picture of old people's homes, perhaps, but the satiric exaggeration helps the novelist enforce his central point: that the evil in the camps can't be soothingly cordoned off as having a unique status. If we are talking about disregard for human life, then one of the book's most chilling moments comes when Max's daughter and her pompous Tory MP husband (embarrassed that the War Crimes Committee is about to pounce) try to ensure that 'progress' in the old man's 'dying' is not 'impeded' (' 'It would be a considerable relief all round,' said Lizzie. 'Not least for Daddy himself, I'm sure' '). The brute they suborn is Jack, a cretinous American psychopath, addicted to video nasties and Chinese food, and possessed of a tip- top practical talent for euthanasia. He becomes Max's adversary in an inverted reworking of Jack and the Beanstalk.

Max cites Fowler, towards the end of the book, on 'the False First- Personal One' and how the disguise is exposed when you start to mix in 'I' ('I had known in the small circle of one's personal friends quite a number of Jews who . . .'). Yet in his dreams of the 'facility' and his final eerie vision of a Florida theme park as constituting an exceptionally clean and efficient concentration camp, Max's mind steadfastly evades the responsibility of the personal pronoun ('One was human, after all'). The impression this makes is both very unpleasant and deeply sad, but then this fine novel would have failed if it did not leave you feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

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