Mein Fuhrer has forbidden me from writing on subjects not suitable for an entertaining Sunday newspaper. That is the reason why I chose this week’s topic. Anyway, kids like watching horror movies. So do many adults. Thus my piece is entertainment. So there you are, editor.
In the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve were forbidden from eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
If there was only good we would not know evil. Are you good or evil or both? Every “good” human being may do evil things and an evil person may still do good things. (I hear howls of protest from readers who consider themselves exclusively good but I ask them can you judge yourselves objectively?)
On March 7, 2022, the mayor of Hostomel, Yuri Pylypko, along with several other volunteers, was killed by Russian troops while distributing food and medicine to residents. His body was booby-trapped by Russian forces. When the local priest came to pick up his body to take it away and bury it, a Russian soldier stopped the priest from getting close, disarmed the trap, and helped load the mayor’s body onto a wheelbarrow to be transported away. Yuri was buried near the local church with honours.
This story demonstrates the co-existence of good and evil; right and wrong. What motivated the soldier to spare the priest’s life? Was he religious and did he strongly feel it was wrong to kill a priest? Did he have the same compunctions about killing other civilians including women and children? We do not know if that same soldier had already killed innocent civilians and went on to kill more. Was he a young conscript who had never wanted to be involved in this dreadful war but had no choice but to obey orders?
At the core of Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller is an exploration of the nature of evil and whether a person who has committed truly monstrous acts can later make amends by living the rest of his life in an exemplary fashion. Can a person who previously was a monster feel guilt and genuinely feel remorse? Are good and evil inseparable? Is an otherwise good person capable of doing an evil deed in certain circumstances such as in war? These questions are posed in the context of the holocaust and of the atrocities committed in concentration camps such as Auschwitz which are portrayed in harrowing detail in this book.
Two stories play out alongside one another. The one is about mythical monsters in human form and the other is about actual monsters in human form, Nazi war criminals.
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The title The Storytelling relates to a fictional story being told and written down by a Jewish woman, Minka, whilst she is held in Auschwitz concentration camp. A camp commander, an SS Officer called Reiner, finds out about this story and assigns Minka to his office. Reiner had wanted to write poetry before the war and is intrigued by Minka’s story. He tells her to continue writing it and then read it to him. Ultimately Reiner saves her from the gas chambers. Reiner has himself done heinous things in Auschwitz.
Minka’s fictional story is about men who have died and become monsters in human form called upiórs. They have an insatiable appetite for blood and kill people to consume their blood. A woman takes as her lover a man an apparently normal man, but who has a brother who is an upiór. It then emerges that her lover, the man too is an upiór, who has killed her father. He tells her that one day he may not even be able to stop himself from killing her. After his capture, he is incarcerated and tortured. She gets into the prison and he does what he asks, she kills him. In Minka’s fictional story this passage appears several times:
“Nobody who looks at a shard of flint lying beneath a rock ledge, or finds a splintered log by the side of the road would ever find magic in their solitude. But if you bring them together in the right circumstances, you can start a fire that consumes the world.”
The main story revolves around a young woman, Sage, who is lives in a small town. She is Jewish but she does not practice her faith. Her face has been scarred when she crashed her car. Her mother died in this accident and Sage feels guilty for causing her death. She tries to hide away because she does not want people to see her disfigured face although she later overcomes this fear and interacts with others and finds a man who loves her.
Sage befriends an elderly man, Josef Weber, who is widely known around town for being a kind and generous man. He and his wife lived in the town for 40 years, though his wife recently died. Josef is seen as a model citizen. After Josef and Sage become close friends, he reveals to her that he was an SS officer who was a commander in the Auschwitz concentration camp where he did dreadful things. He begs her to help him end his life after granting him forgiveness. He seeks redemption.
Sage reports the case to the agency responsible for tracking down Nazi war criminals. To try to prove the case, Sage’s grandmother is prevailed upon to tell Sage her experiences in Auschwitz. Minka reveals in appalling detail what happened to her and other camp inmates. She ends by relating how Reiner saved her life but how his brother, another SS officer who was a complete monster, had killed Minka’s close friend right in front of her.
Although the grandmother dies, enough evidence is still obtained to convict Josef. Throughout the investigation of Josef, Josef was believed to be the entirely monstrous SS officer and not Reiner. Josef tries unsuccessfully to commit suicide and again asks Sage to end his life. Finally Sage obliges by killing him but does not first forgive him. When she later finds out that she has killed Reiner and not his monstrous brother she decides it makes little difference: Reiner had also done dreadful things in Auschwitz.
Another example of confusion between evil and good is a concentration camp commander who spends his day torturing and killing people and then goes home to his family in the evening and behaves like a loving caring person toward his family. Then there is the person frequently depicted in Hollywood movies who seems to be a normal law-abiding citizen and has a job and a family but who under the cover of darkness perpetrates a series of rapes and murders.
What of the story of Eric Lomax who was terribly tortured in a Japanese prisoner camp and yet was able many years later to forgive the Japanese soldier who acted as interpreter when he was being tortured? Would Eric have been able to forgive the commander that carried out the torture?
Stevenson’s famous story The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde also deals with the duality of good and evil in one person. Dr Jekyll is a respectable person who supports various charities. Mr Hyde is the epitome of evil. What follows are excerpts from the summary and interpretation of the book on the internet in the Britannica (https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Strange-Case-of-Dr-Jekyll-and-Mr-Hyde) as follows:
“Dr Jekyll, a respectable doctor secretly develops a potion to allow him to separate the good and evil aspects of his personality. He is thereby able at will to change into his increasingly dominant evil counterpart, Mr. Hyde. While he initially had no difficulty in returning from his rabid personality, he soon finds himself slipping into Mr. Hyde without recourse to his drug. He temporarily stops using his potion, but, when he tries it again, as his persona of Mr. Hyde committed murder. After that, it took a vast amount of potion to keep him from spontaneously becoming Mr. Hyde. Unable to make any more of the drug because of an unknown but apparently crucial impurity in the original supply, Jekyll soon ran out of the drug. Indeed, he took the last of it to write a confession before becoming Hyde permanently.”
“Stevenson suggested that the human propensities for good and evil are not necessarily present in equal measure. The story has long been interpreted as a representation of the Victorians’ bifurcated self. Jekyll is in every way a gentleman, but just beneath the surface lie baser desires that remain unspoken; he is the very personification of the dichotomy between outward gentility and inward lust. The names of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the two alter egos of the main character, have become shorthand for the exhibition of wildly contradictory behaviour, especially between private and public selves.”
In a similar vein, the Donestre were a race of mythical creatures dating back to the days of Alexander the Great. They had lion heads and human bodies. They were infamous for their perplexing actions. They were able to speak all the languages of the world. They had human intelligence despite the fact that they ate humans. They would befriend travellers from other lands before devouring them, leaving only a decapitated head. The monster would then sit by the head and mourn. There are different explanations about why the monster mourned his victims. Was the monster showing remorse; were his were deceptive and were merely mimicking human despair; yet another was that the tears were merely crocodile tears.
A final thought. We are very quick to judge and condemn others for their reprehensible deeds but should we be so ready to do so when we have also done bad things in the past?
“According to the Gospel of John, the Pharisees, in an attempt to discredit Jesus, brought a woman charged with adultery before him. Then they reminded Jesus that adultery was punishable by stoning under Mosaic law and challenged him to judge the woman so that they might then accuse him of disobeying the law. Jesus thought for a moment and then replied, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her.’ The people crowded around him were so touched by their own consciences that they departed. When Jesus found himself alone with the woman, he asked her who were her accusers. She replied, ‘No man, lord.’ Jesus then said, ‘Neither do I condemn thee: go and sin no more.’ ” Taken from Dictionary.com.