translated by Georgia de Chamberet
The old saw of asking Daddy what he did in the war is given a hellish new twist in Olivier Guez’s novel, The Disappearance of Josef Mengele. “Dad, what did you do in Auschwitz?,” Rolf Mengele asks his father, whose nickname, “the Angel of Death,” Rolf has only recently learned about. “My duty,” Dr. Josef Mengele replies. “My military duty in the name of German science was to protect the organic biological community, purify the blood, eliminate foreign bodies.”
This chilling exchange, which arrives near the end of Guez’s lean, unsparing book, has the ring of truth. Narrative nonfiction, especially concerning someone as heinous as Mengele, is a perilous exercise at the best of times. But Guez, a French journalist and the author of several books, has already earned his reader’s trust by the thoroughness of his documentation and research, which included traveling to the various South American countries where Mengele concealed himself after World War II.
The Disappearance of Josef Mengele comes to the U.S. in a seamless translation from Georgia de Chamberet, after selling more than 300,000 copies in France and winning the 2017 Prix Renaudot. It follows Affinity Konar’s equally harrowing debut novel, Mischling (2016), which depicted Mengele’s brutal experiments on a pair of twins in Auschwitz. Both novels are good examples of how powerful fiction can be at bringing us as close as possible to the workings of a fiendish mind.
Time and again Guez homes in on Mengele’s mediocre character: his preening vanity, obsessive neatness, and insufferable complacency. The book begins in 1949 with Mengele entering Argentina under a false name and a fake International Committee of the Red Cross document. As Mengele familiarizes himself with Buenos Aires’s checkerboard of streets, he cheerfully recalls a different checkerboard of “huts, gas chambers, crematoria, railways—where he spent his best years as an engineer of the human race.”
In the novel, this dreadful chapter of the Holocaust, which lasted from May 1943 to January 1945, serves as the echo chamber to Mengele’s new life of evasion and subterfuge. Guez employs an internal monologue in the third person to establish Mengele’s pomposity and lack of humanity. “With a movement of his switch, he, the all-powerful, sealed the fate of his victims: to the left, instant death in the gas chambers; to the right, a slow death by forced labor or in his laboratory—the largest in the world, which he fed with ‘suitable human material’ (dwarfs, giants, cripples, twins) each day when the convoys arrived.”
In a sick piece of irony, it was Mengele’s vanity that originally saved him from execution and led to a life on the run, which finally ended with him drowning, in 1979, at the age of 67. When Mengele joined the SS, in 1938, he refused to have a tattoo of his blood group to meet regulatory requirements, so when the Americans arrested him after the war, he passed for a humble soldier and was subsequently released.
In a sick piece of irony, it was Mengele’s vanity that originally saved him from execution and led to a life on the run.
As a boy, Mengele had been teased for the olive tint of his skin and nicknamed “Beppo the Gypsy.” Hiding behind a dark mustache in Buenos Aires, he was immediately able to blend into the crowd. Not that it mattered in Argentina during the 1950s. Guez describes a country awash with Nazis who had been made to feel welcome by President Juan Perón: “War criminals are invited to build dams, missiles and nuclear power plants, turning Argentina into a superpower.”
Mengele spots an opening and begins to work as a salesman for his father’s successful agricultural-machinery business. He also has a sideline in backstreet abortions. For a while it’s a life of easy street, hobnobbing with the likes of Ante Pavelić, the Croatian poglavnik who was responsible for the deaths of more than 850,000 Gypsies, Serbians, and Jews, and Eduard Roschmann, the so-called Butcher of Riga, who ordered the massacre of 30,000 Jews. Weekends are spent in the pampas at the house of former Luftwaffe fighter pilot Dieter Menge, where “a bust of Hitler brightens up the garden, and a swastika in granite adorns the bottom of the swimming pool.”
But Mengele, who has been living under the pseudonym “Helmut Gregor,” grows complacent and reverts back to his original name so that he can take out a bank loan and marry his late brother’s widow. He has not accounted for a change in the air. By the mid-1950s, the world finally discovers the full truth about the extermination of the European Jews. A formal demand for Mengele’s extradition is forwarded from Bonn to Buenos Aires, and another one wings its way to Paraguay, where the increasingly frantic doctor has fled.
Guez now begins to unpick Mengele’s inexorable fall, which has him tramping around Paraguay and then Brazil in a desperate race to elude the Nazi hunters and Mossad agents hot on his trail. Sadly, they never caught up with him. But Mengele was a spent force, his final years plagued by illnesses both real and imagined. Guez provides the slightest grain of comfort in a quote from the Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard: “The punishment matches the guilt: to be deprived of all appetite for life, to be brought to the highest degree of weariness of life.”
Tobias Grey is a Gloucestershire-based freelance arts-and-entertainment writer for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times