Reading “The Boys From Brazil”

Posted on | April 22, 2019

I recently read Ira Levin’s 1974 thriller, The Boys from Brazil, mostly because I had a silly idea for the Bastet universe that has since grown into something else entirely.

The one thing I was hoping for, and the one thing The Boys from Brazil is emphatically not, is a technothriller. It is, instead, a very Jewish thriller, in the sense that Levin concocts a genuinely horrifying milieu for Jews, and then sets the 60-something hero racing against the clock to stop his even older but better-kept foe from succeeding.

Ezra Lieberman is a Nazi Hunter, and he learns that Josef Mengele has dispatched assassination teams to six countries to murder 94 retirement-age low-level civil servants, all men. Information gathering was primitive in 1974 compared to today, but Lieberman has a friend at Reuters sift through death reports to locate deaths that match that description. He meets with several widows and their children, and then realizes it is not the men who have anything in common, and not their all-suspiciously-younger wives, but their sons, only children, all 13 years old, who all look similar. Not similar: exactly alike.

Josef Mengele has created 94 clones of Adolph Hitler, and distributed them to 94 couples who couldn’t otherwise have children. He then intended to make sure those 94 adoptive fathers died during their 13th year to ensure the “traumatic experience” that made Hitler Hitler was repeated in the boys’ lives.

As I said, this book is not a technothriller. Mengele has a chapter where he walks us through the remains of the laboratory, which is now a burned ruin. Levin tells us nothing about the techniques used. Which is actually to the better; we don’t need to know and, in 1974, cloning was a huge conversation in the popular and SF press. Levin, startingly for the time, refuses to buy into genetic determinism, and accepts that it’s likely the boys will not be anything like Adolph Hitler, and even if they are, they’re not going to be as successful as Hitler. As Lieberman says in a conversation later:

“I say in my talks it takes two things to make it happen again: a new Hitler and social conditions like in the thirties. But that’s not true. It takes three things: The Hitler, the conditions, and the people to follow the Hitler.”

And don’t you think he’d find them?”

“No, not enough of them. I really think people are better and smarter now, not so much thinking their leaders are God. The television makes a big difference. And history, knowing… Some he’d fine, yes; but no more, I think— I hope— than the pretend-Hitlers we have now, in Germany and South America.”

On the one hand, I, and most biologists, do agree with Levin’s view that biological determinism cannot result in clones having the same desires or talents as their progenitor. aOn the other hand, as we’ve seen today, Levin was incredibly, sadly wrong: not that many people joined the NSDAP (The Nazi Party), but enough did that the complacently satisfied and silently cowed population allowed the Nazis to overrun a fractured, defensive democratic opposition.

Which is where we are today: a loud and committed authoritarian populace, making up no more than a quarter of Americans, is attempting to silence and destroy the factured, defensive democratic opposition. That opposition is committed to the elevation of the United States as an intellectual and moral powerhouse, something Trump and his people cannot do as it is literally not in their nature, but is so factured on questions of tactics and outcomes that it has struggled to unify in the face of Trumpism.

The one thing that blows my mind about this book is that Josef Mengele is the villain of this book, presented as a mass-murderer who’s willing to commit murder even today to accomplish his goals. But the fascinating thing is that when Levin wrote this book in 1974, the real Josef Mengele was still alive. He was hiding out in Brazil, and his real life was far more boring and mundane than the burgeoning Nazi revival project depicted in the novel. But what was he going to do? Come out of hiding to protest that the book was a maligning, slanderous misrepresentation of his life and work?

Mengele died in 1979, and it’s fair to say he died badly: paralyzed by a stroke while swimming, he died of drowning, unable to save himself.

The book ends with one of the 18 boys whose fathers were successfully killed by Odessa. The boy is already a talented artist who loves to draw comic books and already knows about storyboards, and he dreams of being a filmmaker someday. As he draws a crowd scene for the movie he’s plotting, he hears

… the people cheering, roaring; a beautiful growing love-thunder that built and build, and then pounded, pounded, pounded, pounded.

Sort of like in those old Hitler movies.

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