JERRY CORNELIUS: And so I set forth, into this tasty world..
(Michael Moorcock, The Final Programme, as adapted by Robert Fuest)
Chris Petit’s masterly new novel, The Butchers of Berlin is a shocking and precise examination on the nature of genocide, both in terms of the Nazi persecutions of the second world war and the specific hungers of the unconquered heart, seeking it’s revenge on the world. Set in 1943, the book details the efforts of a German Police Officer August Schlegl in attempting to solve a series of murders occurring in the city at a time of the mass transportation of the remaining jewish residents, under the auspices and beady eyes of the city’s SS colonists. A group of Jewish Butchers are initially blamed for the flayed female corpse discovered on their premises, a possible act of retaliation against their oppressors who amongst other persecutions have forced them into the daily handling of pork. But this is by no means self evident. As the city is cleared of it’s jews, increasing amounts of blood and legacy are left in their wake and the novel reverberates with the chill echoes of abandonment and desolation.
In story terms, the set up and conundrum are clear: why would a killer or cabal of killers strike now at a time when the currency of death has already been devalued to the extent of an everyday exchange? The predetermined fates of the remaining jews within the city’s limits are also beyond clarity. Death is in the air, so while these fresh murders have the perfect cover, how may their resonance be accurately defined? This is the predicament facing Schlegl in the first pages of the novel, but as the story deepens, the starkness and precision of Petit’s prose allows these questions to emerge and take on unexpected directives.
The book’s locale captures the war at the peak of its cruelty and the dehumanisation of the jews by the Hitlerian hordes chimes sharply with the brutality of the murders Schlegl is faced with. The writing style, as ever with Petit, is accessible and restrained, allowing the reader to move freely through the scenes, unemcumbered by verbiage, but always sticking close to events. This flow and relative ease is a common factor in all of Petit’s procedural style novels from The Psalm Killer to The Passenger and a distillation of the vibrant atmospherics of his first book, Robinson, which is one of the great novels of the last thirty years. The style is also evident of Petit’s skills and experience as a Film maker. Scenes and episodes both glide past and grip us in the manner of their cinematic counterparts. The constant sense of literal transportation and spiritual movement of Petit’s seminal film Radio On is never far away in all of his work, as he journeys through new territories and his gimlet eye is as ever, razor sharp. He is capable of producing both shocking detail;
‘They’re animals. They can’t even kill like men. The probably fucked her and then rolled around in the blood before they got down to work..’
to the poetry lurking in the commonplace;
‘The light would not come for another hour. Socks and suspenders. Belt and braces..’
All done with an ease which is one part Hemingway and one part Florian Shneider/Ralf Hutter (and the rest of Kraftwerk, for that matter). He draws us in so that we may see our own horrors in his galleried portraiture of the grim.
The book is dedicated to Petit’s friend and collaborator Iain Sinclair and his wife, Anna, and like Sinclair on his legendary walks through London, Petit, for whom driving is his preferred idiom of choice notices and notates everything. A sense of motion is ever present in his films and books, and because his authorial voice is so assured, Petit is able to use alternating narratives to tell the story, gifting it with the full Technicolor treatment of old. He has used this device before in his novel The Human Pool, which also touched on issues surrounding the holocaust, but here, Petit is taking on a wider perspective on human culpability and it’s requisite frailty. He is unflinching in his study of everyday evil, whose nature is more particular to his prose than to his work in film, which is more to do with the existential as expressed in practical situations and arrangements.
There are any other Film Directors who have written novels, from Pasolini to Peter Greenaway and Neil Jordan, but Petit has always been able to fuse the two forms, with ease and make them truly reflective of each other, through the already stated power of his fictional voice. He has spoken in interview on a number of occasions about the dwindling opportunities open to artists of his particular stamp. Of his film made with Iain Sinclair, London Orbital, he said; ‘We thought it was the beginning of something. It turned out to be the end of something..’ in terms of appealing to the current trends of broadcast commissioners, so there is a sense that his return to prose is a safer and possibly more secure place from which to launch a creative assault. There is also in the crime novel genre to which these books belong, a formula to be enhanced or even subverted and Petit does that here effortlessly. The intricacy of his approach to structure is one accomplishment, which is then compounded by the free form roaming through the streets of Berlin, as the linerality of the plot pans, tracks and dollies filmlike through events and locations, casting what would have seemed familiar with an iridescent glow of frightening immediacy.
While Shlegl and his contempories have a touch of the Dashiel Hammett’s in their dialogue;
‘Don’t waste your time on it,’ Niebe looked at him archly, ‘Its not as though homicide was your beat.’
They are also fully aware of the viscerality of the environment within which they find themselves. The obscenity of Nazism is a scar on every passing cloud and a clot in every rainfall. Context and atmosphere stain them daily and that they are able to progress at all is testament to Petit’s skills as a storyteller. Denied one form of expression at any given time, Petit is able to access another and bend it to his will, lifting a story with which we might think we are over familiar, beyond and above our expectations.
Unlike what seems like everyone else, I do not believe a review is there to encapsulate and tell you the whole story of its subject book in so many thousand words. It’s purpose should only be to make you want to read the bloody thing (sic). I am attempting to give a flavour of the approach and purpose that I detected while reading and engaging with the book as a means of encouragement and because I believe there is so much more to be found in Petit’s writing than there is in other novels of recent history. The esteemed Director Lindsay Anderson once said of the equally esteemed John Ford that, ‘there are two types of film maker; the journeyman and the poet..’ Ford was both. As is Petit – in the truest sense of the word and chiefly because of the journey that he takes us on.
The reader and viewer are combined as never before. Petit is also an expert dramatist in his handling of scenes and prospective audience. We are instantly there in the story, transported by relatable prose that often seems to rhyme with our own needs for engagement and confession, and immersed in the glut and the grime of what is presented as well as the smells and the look of the dead.
The soon to be dead and the drear expectation they face is another theme of the story which courses through the book like a river of rain on pained streets. Shlegl, in one sense, on the wrong side of western sympathies is battling overwhelming odds as tries to solve the case. The books’ other protagonist Sybil is also fighting her own small crusade of escape and resistance against increasingly querulous odds and the fact that their joint aims and issues combine is down to Petit’s skill as structuralist and observer. He avoids uneasy sentiment and tells it ‘like it is.’ That many of us do not know what it is or indeed what it looks like is laid out in the writing and evidenced in the stare Petit gives us in his author’s photo on the back jacket flap of the cover.
This book, then, sensually packaged by Simon and Shuster, has the texture of the darkly desirable object. That the object in question often sears and scorches us as we consume it, is one of the reasons art as a whole and literary accomplishment as a specific practise are necessary. We are not what we eat, wear or read, but are instead reflective of what we take from those engagements. The warped history of the past has smeared many a mirror. Chris Petit returns our scrutiny to some of life’s darkest windows and points of observation, through his unflinching examination and documentation of moments of both weakness and renunciation. His recent film for television, Content was in part concerned with a fictionalised rumination on his own aging and current position or place in the modern creative context of craft over technology, as emphasised by his relationship with his children and in this novel, he asks similar questions of a developing society, which until a few years ago was still marked by the atrocities of the holocaust. As we enter a time when the last survivors of that event are dead or dying, the ignorance of current practise edges those events ever closer to conjecture. The SS and their counterparts are all around us still, disguised as fat faced fools in this country, France, Russia, and indeed everywhere else, and as new priorities take over, we are in danger of losing a vital part of the chill that charms our fears and paranoia.
In fashioning a story that fits with the current trend for murder based fiction on the page and screen, Petit in this highly relevant novel, reminds us that we have not risen far from the mire, and that with the pretence lifted, the harsh light of the day we have made for ourselves scours the lines in the dwindling flesh of each face. We are all butchers, in terms of how we disseminate, divide and forego connection and in terms of how we disregard others, misplace value and gorge and choke at will on the events that surround us and the produce of the society that we have made for ourselves. This book allows the reader to place his or her own heart on the spiritual counter and to weigh the consequence of a Kundera-like laughter and forgetting, slicing through the shared aromas of defeat and questioning all we’d consume. It is a book which wraps the still bleeding past in its own form of greaseproof paper; a 482 page slab of reality that resists refridgeration and which will only improve on the shelf. As you finger your way through its elegant pages, the porousness of your flesh will be stained by the bloods and lost fluids of its characters and you will be reminded that no truly worthy subject for fiction is easily dismissed or forgotten. The masterfully conjured faces of the characters within will fill your own and you will inhale every taste and sensation described.
The Butchers of Berlin is the new film by Chris Petit. As you read and consume it, and regardless of diet, you will know what it is to be meat.
David Erdos 4/5/16