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)

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