Wednesday, 8 December 1999

Romain Gary: The Dance of Genghis Cohn (1969)

Translation: By the author
Edition: Jonathan Cape, 1969
Review number: 402

Romain Gary's novel of the Holocaust is like no other. Instead of directly portraying the suffering of the Jews, it looks at the effect it had on those who carried out the tortures, the massacres. Depending on how you look at it, the novel has either one or two major characters, and both they and those around them are symbolic of other things. Police Commissioner Schatz of the small German town of Licht has a shameful secret in his past, shared with hundreds of other Germans of his generation: during the war, he was a sergeant in the SS, and ordered the massacre of Jews. But now he is haunted by the ghost of one of the men whose death he ordered, a comedian who had the stage name Genghis Cohn. A constant reminder of his guilt, Cohn has driven Schatz to the point of secretly keeping Jewish festivals and eating kosher food. At the moment, he is also under severe stress because a mass murderer is at large: over twenty men have been discovered in the forest of Geist around Licht, with no trousers on and expressions of ecstasy: they have been loved to death.

Gary is looking at how, towards the end of the sixties, the Holocaust began to be forgotten as new injustices took its place in the public consciousness: the civil rights movement in the US, the Vietnamese villagers massacred by American soldiers. Jews are no longer the victims they have been throughout history. They are even being invited to accept brotherhood with those who once persecuted them (and Gary quotes the Pope and Charles de Gaulle to show that this was really happening). Cohn is suspicious of this offer, for he realises that this means sharing the guilt of the oppressors.

This is the serious side of the novel, which is also hilariously funny, with a very black style of humour. A comedian in the Warsaw ghetto can hardly have been a "feel good" act, and Cohn's ghost continues to make the reader uneasy even when laughing at his wisecracks.

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