Vol. XXIV, #3 William H. Gass
Review of Contemporary Fiction
How to Quiet a Vampire, by Borislav Pekic, translated by Stephen M. Dickey and Bogdan Rakic
reviewed by Michael Pinker
Trans. Stephen M. Dickey and Bogdan Rakic. Northwestern Univ. Press, 2004. 456 pp. Paper $18.95.
In Borislav Pekic’s brilliantly crafted 1977 novel, the terrible fascination of terror dogs the steps of one of its presumed minions as he returns to the scene of his crime to find justification for betraying civilized standards of conduct. Purportedly on vacation in 1965 Yugoslavia, Konrad Rutkowski, once a reluctantly recruited Gestapo junior officer, now a professor of Medieval history, recounts in letters never sent to his brother-in-law in Heidelberg a memoir of his personal Balkan campaign, replete with old demons whose virulence he cannot quell. Once settled with his wife, unknown to her, in the very building where he was based, Rutkowski confronts his half-hearted service to the Reich by dwelling on his unavailing efforts to save the life of an innocent man to whom the town has just dedicated a monumental statue. The lapses and rationalizations Rutkowski reveals bring on a return of the madness that overcame him twenty years earlier, goaded by an immediate superior whose pestilent bravado still holds him in thrall. These letters, presented as a “scholarly edition” complete with “editor’s” notes, glossary, and postscripts, including the transcript of a wartime interrogation, begin in lofty confidence yet inexorably decline into despair and delusions of grandeur. Through allusions in style and subject Pekic also archly sends up several Western philosophical classics, ironically counterpointing his protagonist’s unseemly confessions. For this highly educated intellectual can never outwit his fiendishly cunning immediate superior. Before the undeniable fact of moral irresponsibility Rutkowski twice loses his mind; the blood-lust of fascism sucks all scruples and arguments dry. Bowing before logic as relentless as his nemesis’s interrogations, Pekic’s hapless pawn, one who should have known better than to believe he might stand apart from the merciless cruelty he helped champion, bears witness to the nightmare of moral cowardice.