A Jew Must Die, By Jacques Chessex, Trans W Donald Wilson

Reviewed,Jane Jakeman
Friday 05 February 2010 01:00 GMT

Based on a real event in 1942, this is a novella of immense power. Jacques Chessex, who died last year, was preoccupied by problems of evil. At school in the tiny Swiss town of Payerne, he sat next to the daughter of a Nazi murderer who, with several accomplices, killed a Jewish merchant who came to their town to buy cattle. They lured him to a byre, felled him, cut up his body and hid the pieces in milk cans which they sunk in Lake Neuchâtel.

The language in which Chessex describes this is pared to an absolute minimum of sensationalism. Yet his descriptions are so close and precise that the contrast between the human butchers and the rich kindness of the natural world takes on a metaphysical intensity. How can we make sense of such a world, and who is to blame?

When this book was first published, the people of Payerne were apparently offended at this record of a crime perpetrated in their midst. They need not have felt unjustly singled out, for Chessex makes the murder of a single Jew a parable of larger events. If it is true, as Edmund Burke suggested, that the only necessity for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing, then the folk of Payerne were no worse than those everywhere who had some complicity in the Holocaust.

Chessex has commented that the victim of our time is the Senegalese asylum-seeker. But in this, his last work, he grapples with the statement of the philosopher Jankélévitch, who declared the Holocaust 'imprescriptible'. This was formerly an archaic legality, used neutrally to mean concepts which could not be bound by legislation. Post-Jankélévitch, it has taken on fearsome meanings such as an act of absolute evil for which there is no redemption.

However, as Chessex interprets it, there are particular connotations for the writer, such as the possibility that the "imprescriptible" Holocaust cannot be written about: because it was of such magnitude in its horror that there is a moral complicity even in the fiction writer's imaginative participation in describing "deeds that are not mine, but that I make mine, like it or not, when I write". Is fiction about the Holocaust therefore an acquiescence?

Chessex's answer is to describe the martyrdom of a single individual and convey the monstrosity endured by a whole race. In its imagined evocation of historical fact, A Jew Must Die is in itself a justification of the power of art. This brief, disturbing masterpiece goes to the heart of the creative process.

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