The Boys From Brazil by Ira Levin (1976)

Liebermann said, ‘Ninety-four Hitlers,’ and shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘No. It’s not possible.’ (p.181)

Backstory

It is 1974. Former evil Nazi scientist Dr Mengele, is masterminding from his base on the border between Argentina and Paraguay, the climax of a thirty year-long project. Before the end of the war he took blood and skin samples from the Führer and went on to clone the DNA into scores of embryos. These he impregnated into simple native women and supervised them until they gave birth to identical black-haired blue-eyed baby boys.

Then he set up adoption agencies in a number of Western countries, via which he handed out the babies to couples desperate to adopt, but subject to very specific conditions: the father must be 30 years older than his bride and a domineering bully in a petty civil service job. In other words, replicating the household in which Adolf Hitler grew up.

Now, as the boys approach their thirteenth birthdays, and the fathers approach 65, they must be killed in order to replicate Hitler’s family experience of losing his father at precisely that age. This is the starting point of the novel.

In media res

It opens in a restaurant in South America in which Mengele greets six SS killers laid on by the Comrades Association and begins to brief them about their mission to murder a set of 94 middle aged men in a variety of Western countries. But, it turns out the meeting has been taped by a waitress bribed by a keen young Jewish sleuth, Barry Koehler, who paid her to place a tape recorder under the table.

Although Koehler had used a fake name and makes off to his hotel room, Dr M and his associates discover the taping and set out with Teutonic efficiency to search all the cheap hotels in town. Koehler gets on the phone to Vienna, to the famous Nazi hunter Yakov Liebermann (widely seen as a portrait of famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal) and is half way through explaining the dinner, the briefing and the plan for the murders when his door bursts open and the Nazi killers charge in and stab him to death.

For a tense, spooky, voodoo moment, Dr Mengele holds the telephone receiver in his hand listening to the voice of his arch enemy Liebermann asking for Barry… while he, Liebermann, becomes aware of evil, pure evil, breathing down the phone…

And this is just the first 30 pages. See how focused it is. It has a real story to tell and tells it with terrific pace, economy of words, the maximum of tension and excitement.

Focused

What is it that makes The Boys From Brazil so vastly more effective as entertainment than anything by Hammond Innes or Desmond Bagley? Why – unlike Innes or Bagley – does it have grip and excitement right from the start?

Because it is so much more focused in terms of plot and style. In fact, like Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, there is really just one idea and one technique: the idea is to have a big horror Secret (Devil impregnates women; all women in Stepford are androids; the Nazis have cloned Hitler) and the narrative technique is that the protagonist (with the reader looking over his or her shoulder) slowly uncovers it, piecing the clues together, till it stands revealed in all its science fiction, Gothic horror.

American

The approach is so much more professional. Created in an environment vastly more focused on result, outputs, commercialisation, movie rights, making money. ‘Show me the money. Where’s the beef?’ Fast-moving, streamlined. And this is reflected in a number of high-speed techniques.

Liebermann sat on a bench doing some figuring with his pen and a pocket calculator. The matron, sitting on the other side of his folded coat, said, ‘Do you think he’ll get her off?’
‘I’m not a lawyer,’ he said.
Fassler, nudging his car restlessly against stalled traffic, said, ‘I’m totally mystified…’
(p.154, 2011 Corsair paperback edition)

In these four sentences, Liebermann goes from sitting in the corridor outside the cell of a convicted criminal in a prison and talking to a woman who happens to be sitting nearby – to sitting in the passenger seat of the lawyer Fassler’s car as the latter speaks – by magic, with no explanation, with no intervening description of any of the numerous actions by both men which must have intervened. Scene A. Scene B. And not even jumping between scenes, but jumping between the relevant bits of dialogue of each of the scenes.

All the way through the prose betrays the need for speed. Almost all the sentences drop traditional conjuntions, in order to shunt a sequence of active verbs one after the other. Conveying speed and also a kind of relentlessly factual objective accounting. No colour, adjectives, atmosphere. This, then this, this, this, then this. Got it.

He pushed the phone’s button down, held it, looked at his watch, closed his eyes and stood motionless; opened his eyes, released the button, tapped at it. Got the cashier and told her to get his food-and-phone bill ready. Put the moustache on, the wig. The gun. Jacket, coat, hat; grabbed the portfolio. (p.206)

It must be deliberate because it happens in Rosemary and Stepford that there are more and more conjunction-free sentences, shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs, as the narrative hurtles to its climax. A deliberate way of getting the reader to feel increasingly airless, trapped, caught in the roller-coaster, to make the reader pick up speed. Longer phrasing slows us down as we need to digest and process. Shorter sentences. Make us. Read. Faster and faster. And speed up our breathing. We react physically / physiologically to the material before us. In this scene Mengele has just shot Wheelock dead and is now nervously waiting for his arch-enemy Liebermann to arrive:

Mengele looked at himself in the coat-stand’s mirror; detached the wig and took it off, peeled the moustache from his upper lip; put moustache and wig into a pocket of his hanging coat, pulled the flap out and over.
Looked at himself again as he palmed his cropped grey hair with both hands. Frowned.
Took his jacket off, hung it on a hook; moved the coat to the same hook, covering the jacket. (p.216)

Until, in the final chapter, it does what Rosemary’s Baby did and turns into poetry. Tense, free, one word verse:

Liebermann and Mengele stared across the room at each other.
The front door opened.
Closed.
They looked at the doorway.
A weight dropped in the hallway. Metal clinked.
Footsteps.
(p.231)

Levin

As in Rosemary and Stepford, Levin continually surprises the reader with nifty phrasing, the unexpected angling of words, new assemblages.

He lit the tip of the branch and put the lighter back behind him; dipped the branch to strengthen the flame, and stepping forward, threw it onto the flame-bursting folders and magazines. Flame sheared up the wall. (p.168)

He saw with a sudden down-press of guilt Yakov Liebermann shambling toward him. (40)

Small white scars darned his face. (p.2)

Yoshiko was nesting together small bowls of drying leftovers. (p.19)

Levin has a consistent ability to express things clearly and effectively but in new ways, non-traditional-English ways, startling eye-opening ways:

The man in white finger-sprang the lockflap of his briefcase. (p.6)

I didn’t know it was called a ‘lockflap’ – that is a very American knowledgeability about practical names for practical objects in the world – but I think he’s invented a new verb, ‘to finger-spring’.

A soccer game tided back and forth on the television. (p.52)

He experiments with phrasal adjectives:

They got up and went from the small room of scavenged furniture, animal posters, paperback books, into an almost-the-same-size kitchen… (p.176)

Neither with the brown wig and moustache nor his own cropped grey hair and newly shaven upper lip did he look much at all, alas, like this handsome sixteen-years-younger himself. (p.185)

He dashed back… to make sure his clothes and suitcase were still in his Do Not Disturb-signed room. (p.205)

‘Go to it. At a not-alarming pace.’ (p.213)

And then phrasal people, which is novel:

‘You don’t know?’ the-Nazi-not-Wheelock asked him. (p.222)

He shook his head at no-not-Mengele. (p.223)

And sometimes creates whole new linguistic-spatial effects:

‘Good morning,’ Fassler said, going forward. ‘How are you?’
‘Fine, thanks,’ the matron said. She gave her smile to Lieberman, and covered it with closing door. (p.145)

Hang on. What? ‘She gave her smile to Lieberman’ is unusual but assimilable, but ‘and covered it with closing door’ requires a stop and reread. Making ‘closing door’ into a noun which can be managed by the verb ‘cover’ is doing something very inventive, is shifting normal useage way outside its comfort zone and, in so doing, creating a new feeling in the mind, a new combination, a new way of perceiving.

The simplicity of the vocabulary conceals the linguistic inventiveness. It is a sophisticated effect which comes out of (maybe Jewish) everyday speech. Certainly, it’s very American to create Modernism out of street corner diction.

Wheelcock unzipped his jacket; red shirt was inside it. (p.210)

‘Underneath he was wearing a red shirt.’ ‘To reveal a red shirt underneath’… But ‘red shirt was inside it’ combines two novelties in five words: giving ‘red shirt’ no article (‘the’ or ‘a’) makes it seem like a bad translation, or turns red shirt into an abstract quality (darkness was inside, all hope was lost); and ‘inside’ clothes? No, in English we always say ‘underneath’; ‘inside’ makes clothes sound like a piece of equipment.

Wheelock ducked and stepped down onto a landing of household implements clipped to plank wall. (p.214)

The hands slipped from the rails and Wheelock toppled forward. The front of his head banged floor below. (p.215)

In both case removing the article has a peculiarly disorientating effect, converting a banal object into an abstract quality. Or makes it feel supremely present. No need to refer to floor or plank wall by use of a definite article: omitting it makes the thing super hyper-real.

Jewish

Because the lead protagonist, the Nazi hunter Lieberman is very Jewish, working with other Jews, talking with his Jewish wife and children, Levin gives him Jewish rhythms of speech and thought. I’m not expert enough to be familiar with the linguistic origins or definitions of Jewish-American speech, but I recognise it when I read it and hear it in my head, familiar from its depiction in Woody Allen movies, TV shows, other Jewish American writers (Saul Bellow and Philip Roth spring to mind as two giant examples). Jewish phrasing:

Astounding, such a sameness. Peas in a pod. (p.130)

Max said, ‘What’s not to follow?’ (p.155)

‘Darling,’ Max said to her across the table, ‘don’t say it’s not possible. Yakov saw. His friend from Heidelberg saw.’ (p.156)

‘What does he teach, her professor – political science?’ (p.165)

Jewish deadpan humour:

‘He’s in America!’ Mengele cried.
‘Not unless they moved it to Düsseldorf.’ (p.162)

and straightforward descriptions of Jewish appearance and posture:

Klaus looked beyond Lena; saw Liebermann standing in profile, head bent to an open book, rocking slightly: Jew at prayer. (p.180)

Jewish vocabulary:

A very cool character, this momzah… (p.221) [I can’t find momzer online; mamzer is Yiddish for ‘bastard’]

‘It will draw to them exactly the kind of meshuganahs who’ll make them be Hitlers…’ (p.253) [meshuganah = ‘a strange, eccentric or irresponsible person’]

‘They don’t pay bupkes.’ (p.256) [bupke = bupkis, Yiddish for ‘nothing’]

I like all this. It is wholly appropriate to a plot about Jews combating Nazis, it gives a real granularity to the world of Liebermann, his friends and family and helpers. It adds colour to a novel which is, otherwise, sometimes in danger of moving too fast to have flavour. Sure, the Nazis in the novel say Heil Hitler and Levin takes us into Mengele’s thoughts on race ie the world being drowned in a tide of dark-skinned foreigners, so that the pure Aryan race must be saved etc. Mengele gets equal air-time. But the Nazi scenes are not as warm and rounded as the mealtimes and the discussions and arguments and phraseology and vocabulary which bring to life Liebermann’s Jewish milieu.

The plot?

You want plot? OK, plot you shall have: for the rest of the novel Mengele and Liebermann circle each other, as Liebermann slowly uncovers the conspiracy, his enquiries prompting Mengele’s Nazi superiors to eventually cancel the schedule of killings and recall the SS men to Argentina. This prompts Mengele, in a fury, to forsake the safety of South America to fly to America and continue his life’s work himself.

Which is where destiny – or the slickly designed plot – brings them together at the house of Doberman dog-breeder Wheelock, next in line to be killed. Here Mengele arrives, gets his confidence then shoots him, and waits for Liebermann – who has by this stage worked out the schedule of assassinations – to arrive. Finally the two old opponents meet and there is a very tense scene as Mengele pretends to be the dead Wheelock and Liebermann slowly realises something is very wrong with his host with the heavy German accent…

Long story short: Mengele doesn’t win and the Dobermans play a large and very bloodthirsty role in his gruesome death. (This is Levin’s wish fulfilment as the real Dr Mengele lived happily in South America until 1979 – I wonder if he read this book? I wonder what he made of his portrayal?)

Liebermann is shot and badly injured by the Doctor, but recovers in hospital; and there is a coda:

The Jewish organisation which has been helping/shadowing Liebermann wants the names of all 94 boys so they can kill them. If there’s even a chance one of them might grow into something like the historic Adolf Hitler, the future will not forgive them for not preventing another Holocaust. But Liebermann burns the one and only list of boys: it is precisely innocent-child killing which they all rail against and are avenging: now they are going in for it themselves? No, not if he can help it.

But this cosy liberal coda is undercut by the very last page of the novel – which depicts one of the boys we haven’t heard about or met, one of the Hitler clones, alone in his den somewhere, with the lights down low, painting in intricate detail a vast futuristic auditorium filled with people all yelling and adulating one central figure who controls their hysteria, and the boy is thinking, Wouldn’t it be nice to be that person, to have that much power…!

Reservations

There is a But. Levin’s hyper-effective prose poetry does, in its hurtling pace, sometimes risk sacrificing all flavour, colour, adjectives, mood — human sympathy — just to focus on purely external descriptions of movements, treating human behaviour as if observing animals, mechanical, clinical.
And this rigorous exclusion of the psychological, of insight or feeling or compassion, goes on to become (I think) the house style for lots of American crime and thriller writers from the 1980s onwards. To demonstrate their virility and toughness and grittiness by dispensing with all human touches – in Sara Paretsky or Thomas Harris or George V Higgins or James Patterson – observing horrible murders or the clinical activities of forensics teams, as if it’s all a laboratory experiment.
And the rigorous exclusion of the human in pursuit of a style ends up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy: writers – who might be expected to leaven the world around us with a little insight, warmth or compassion – simply joining the many forces which conspire to drain the world of the humanity which it so desperately needs.

The movie

Quickly snapped up by Sir Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment, the book was turned into a movie directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (who’d previously made Planet of the Apes and Papillon), starring an elderly Gregory Peck as Mengele (62), Laurence Olivier as Liebermann (71)  and James Mason (69) all competing to have the hammiest German accent, and released in 1978.

Related links

Ira Levin’s novels

  • A Kiss Before Dying (1953)
  • Rosemary’s Baby (1967) A group of satanists in New York arrange for a young wife to be drugged and raped by the Devil, make her think it was her husband who inseminated her after a drunken party, then keep her isolated and controlled while she slowly, horrifyingly, uncovers the truth.
  • This Perfect Day (1970)
  • The Stepford Wives (1972) Young housewife Joanna Eberhart moves with her husband and two children to the idyllic small town of Stepford where she slowly realises the men are part of a conspiracy to murder their wives and replace them with perfectly submissive androids.
  • The Boys from Brazil (1976) Nazi hunter Yakov Liebermann uncovers a fiendish plan to clone and breed replicas of Adolf Hitler, masterminded by evil Nazi genius and Liebermann’s personal nemesis, Dr Mengele.
  • Sliver (1991)
  • Son of Rosemary (1997)
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