Good People by Nir Baram - book review

by Cheryl Pearl Sucher / 23 June, 2016
Good people do bad in this astonishingly compelling novel.
Nir Baram: brilliant. Photo/Osnat Krasnanski
Nir Baram: brilliant. Photo/Osnat Krasnanski

Growing up in the US as a child of Holocaust survivors, I often asked myself what I would have done to escape the ­encroaching shadow of genocidal horror. Could I have done anything to prevent the escalation of the xenophobic, fascistic nationalism that brought the world to the brink of annihilation?

Nir Baram, the brilliant Israeli journalist and author of five novels who is both son and grandson of Israeli Labour Party ministers, bravely tackles this conundrum in his astonishingly powerful novel Good People. The ironic title hints at the hapless fate of his deluded protagonists, whose lives collide at the nadir of their willing collaboration with the killing regimes of Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler.

The novel opens in late 1938 on the precipice of World War II. In Leningrad, 22-year-old Sasha Weissberg, the child of the renowned Jewish ­physicist Andrei and his wife Valeria, who grew up eavesdropping on the lyrical discourse and sexual peccadilloes of her parents’ artistic circle, watches in horror as her father’s mistress, the radical poet Nadya Petrovna, is arrested by Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD, and sent to the Gulag. One by one, Petrovna’s ­acolytes follow, including her parents and her younger twin brothers Vlada and Kolya.

Fearing her own exile, Sasha marries her lover, Maxim Podolsky, and follows him into NKVD service, becoming its lead interrogator, convincing herself that by eliciting and editing the confessions of her parents’ artistic circle she is saving their lives, as well those of her beloved brothers. Disdainfully naive, she questions why those in her thrall remain defiant, “seduced into some illusory hope … that always throbbed in all the weak people she investigated – that everything was all right? Even when it was clear that the game was up, and there was no chance of evading punishment, their miserable souls groped for some sign of redemption.”

The chilling irony of that thought is its self-reflexivity. In Baram’s fatalistic, labyrinthine Stalinistic universe, the game will always be up and there will be no escape for anyone.

LS2416_b&c_Good-peopleAt the same time, in Berlin, Thomas Heiselberg, a successful market researcher with the American multinational Milton Company, witnesses the savage murder of his ailing mother and her beloved Jewish ­companion, Hannah Stein, at the hands of the SS. Having set up the Milton Company’s Department of German Consumer Psychology, Thomas has risen to the pinnacle of his profession, “familiarising himself with different societies and cultures, each of which demanded a different set of assumptions”.

Empowered by his success, he naively believes in his own invincibility. This narcissistic egotism insulates him from the genocidal consequences of the Nazi party’s totalitarian rise, and after his company closes its German shop on the eve of war, he offers his expertise to the Nazi leadership aspiring to world conquest. Like Sasha, Thomas believes he’s simply saving himself as he empowers the Reich to return Germany to its heralded greatness.

Ultimately, the paths of Sasha and Thomas cross, their fates similarly entwined. But the anticipation of doom does nothing to detract from this compelling, important story.

GOOD PEOPLE, by Nir Baram (Text, $40)

Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage


How social media can help reform your eating habits
73637 2017-05-28 00:00:00Z Nutrition

How social media can help reform your eating habit…

by Jennifer Bowden

With users and recipes by the millions, it's not surprising what social media can do.

Read more
How New Zealand police compare: firearms, tasers, pursuits and dogs
Pirates of the Caribbean 5: There be some good science in that there film
73598 2017-05-27 00:00:00Z Science

Pirates of the Caribbean 5: There be some good sci…

by The Conversation

Ever wondered how accurate the film you're watching really is? Michael Milford got to work on the latest Pirates of the Caribbean offering.

Read more
You break it, you bought it: How a  proposed law change would affect tenants
73770 2017-05-27 00:00:00Z Property

You break it, you bought it: How a proposed law c…

by Susan Strongman

This bill means careless tenants will have to foot the bill when they break stuff. But is it fair?

Read more
What has rugby ever done for me?
73203 2017-05-27 00:00:00Z Sport

What has rugby ever done for me?

by Graham Adams

Rugby is a minority sport worldwide and as our demographics change it'll eventually become a minority sport in New Zealand. I won’t mourn its demise.

Read more
Does our dominance of Super Rugby threaten the competition’s popularity?
73634 2017-05-27 00:00:00Z Sport

Does our dominance of Super Rugby threaten the com…

by Paul Thomas

Absolutely, says the big-picture, furrowed-brow brigade. New Zealand rugby needs its rivals to be strong.

Read more
The best of Hawke's Bay wine
73800 2017-05-26 16:28:49Z Wine

The best of Hawke's Bay wine

by Michael Cooper

Pinot gris and pinot noir are soaring beside the traditional varieties of Hawke’s Bay.

Read more
David Hill: Reflections on an old family photo in May
73765 2017-05-26 12:37:06Z Life in NZ

David Hill: Reflections on an old family photo in …

by David Hill

“May, 1930”, it says on the back. It’s the only photo of my mother’s family together, lined up in front of someone’s box Brownie camera.

Read more