Sunday, May 20, 2007
Last week I read Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, the last novel but one of the remarkably prolific American writer. The imagined tale of an isolationist Charles Lindbergh presidency, surreptitiously commanded by the Nazis in order to prevent the Americans from opposing their march to power in Europe, the novel is, like much of Roth's recent work, a meticulous and carefully-reasoned portrayal of mid-century American society, as seen through the eyes of a Roth alter ego (in this case his fictional nine-year-old self). There was much potential for hysterical hypothesis in the story, given the unanimity of contemporary opinion on Nazism and its threat to Western civilisation. Roth however restores the danger to its proper context, and also the complaisance of so many people (many of them decent folk) in the democratic world towards the barbarity of fascism. In a Newark community where most people (including many prominent Jews) take Lindbergh at his word regarding his intentions when he tempers his anti-semitism as soon as he gets into power, the heroes are Roth's parents, his excitable and belligerent father Herman and his world-weary mother Bess, who aren't fooled. The narrative is a masterly depiction of a few people's principled and prescient stand in the face of what they only see as the madness of others. This in itself is an achievement on Roth's part but what makes the novel even better is the way that he laces the tale with the doubt that perhaps it is only paranoia and angst at the Jews' historical persecution that makes the Roth family imagine that they could be at risk in the freest country on earth. The way in which their freedoms are gradually chipped away at - in a very 'reasonable' way - via the 'Office for American Absorption', a tool for dividing Jewish families by targeting their impressionable young is chilling as well as entirely believable.
Roth knows the dangers of precedent in any form of civic persecution and the ghost of Guantanamo and the reminders of the Bush administration that 'we are living in a different world since 9/11' haunt the book. Similarly, though I refrain from making any wild comparisons between the fascist Lindbergh and the recently-elected French president, there is a disturbing echo of the 'Office of American Absorption' in Sarkozy's newly-established 'Ministry of Identity and Integration', as there is of the institutions of Vichy France.