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The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.

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Wikipedia article

'The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.' is a 1981 literary novella written by George Steiner, in which Jewish Nazi hunters find Adolf Hitler (A.H.) alive in the Amazon jungle thirty years after the end of World War II. The book generated considerable controversy after its publication because in it, Steiner, who is Jewish, allows Hitler to defend himself when he is put on trial in the jungle by his captors. There Hitler maintains that Israel owes its existence to the Holocaust and that he is the "benefactor of the Jews".

'The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.' was a 1983 finalist in the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. It was adapted for the theatre by British playwright Christopher Hampton and was staged in London in April 1982 with Alec McCowen playing the part of Adolf Hitler. It was also staged in Hartford, Connecticut in the United States in 1983 and starred John Cullum as Hitler.

Plot summary

From his base in Tel Aviv, Holocaust survivor Emmanuel Lieber directs a group of Jewish Nazi hunters in search of Adolf Hitler. Lieber believes that the former Fhrer is still alive and following rumours and hearsay, he tracks Hitler's movements through South America, until after months of wading through swamps in the Amazon jungle, the search party finds the 90-year-old alive in a clearing. Lieber flies to San Cristbal where he awaits the group's return with their captive. But getting the old man out of the swamp alive is more difficult than getting in, and their progress is further hampered by heavy thunderstorms.

Meanwhile, broken and incoherent radio messages between Lieber and the search party are intercepted by intelligence agents tracking their progress, and rumours begin to spread across the world of Hitler's capture. Debates flare up over his impending trial, where it will be held and under whose jurisdiction. Orosso is identified as the nearest airfield to the last known location of the search party, and aircraft begin arriving at the hitherto unknown town. But when the search party's radio fails and communication with Lieber is lost, they must make a decision: do they sit out the storms and deliver their captive to Lieber later, or do they try Hitler here and now in the jungle before their prize is snatched from them and Israel by the world at large, who they know will be waiting for them? Their decision is the latter, and against Lieber's advice ("You must not let him speak [...] his tongue is like no other"Steiner 1981, p. 33.) they prepare for a trial with a judge, prosecution and defence "attorneys" selected from the members of the search party. Teku, a local Indian tracker, who had earlier burst in on their camp, is asked to observe the trial as an independent witness.

The attention Hitler is receiving, however, renews his strength, and when the trial begins, he brushes aside his "defence attorney" and begins a long speech in four parts in his own defence:

#Firstly, Hitler claims he took his doctrines from the Jews and copied the notion of the master race from the Chosen people and their need to separate themselves from the "unclean". "My racism is a parody of yours, a hungry imitation."Steiner 1981, p. 122.

#Hitler justifies the Final Solution by maintaining that the Jews' God, purer than any other, enslaves its subjects, continually demanding more than they can give and "blackmailing" them with ideals that cannot be attained. The "virus of utopia"Steiner 1981, p. 124. had to be stopped.

#Hitler states that he was not the originator of evil. "[Stalin] had perfected genocide when I was still a nameless scribbler in Munich." Further, Hitler asserts that the number of lives lost due to his actions are dwarfed by various world atrocities, including those in Russia, China, and Africa.Steiner 1981, p. 125.

#Lastly, Hitler maintains that the Reich begat Israel and suggests that he is the Messiah "whose infamous deeds were allowed by God in order to bring His people home."Steiner 1981, p. 126. He closes by asking, "Should you not honour me who have made [...] Zion a reality?"

At the end of his speech, Teku is the first to react and jumps up shouting "Proven", only to be drowned out by the appearance of a helicopter over the clearing.

Main characters

*Emmanuel Lieber Jewish Holocaust survivor and director of the search party to find Hitler;Steiner 1981, p. 12. after crawling out of a death pit in Bialka he never took the time to mend and embarked on a life-consuming obsession to bring those responsible for the genocide to justice.Steiner 1981, p. 13.

*Search party (all Jewish with family ties to the Holocaust, except for John Asher)

**Simeon search party leader and "presiding judge" at Hitler's trial;Steiner 1981, p. 117. he is Lieber's confidant and torn between leading the party into "unmapped quicksand and green bogs" and turning his back on the "quiet mania of Lieber's conviction".

**Gideon Benasseraf falls ill and dies before the trial begins;Steiner 1981, p. 74. during one of his fever-induced ramblings he suggests that Hitler is Jewish;Steiner 1981, p. 72. he had sought out Lieber after being released from a sanatorium and spending three years recuperating in Paris where the care-free living consumed him with guilt.Steiner 1981, p. 51.

**Elie Barach Orthodox Jew and "prosecution attorney" at the trial; he is the moral compass of the group, but his convictions are disturbed by Gideon Benasseraf's fever-induced assertions that Hitler is Jewish and ends up believing that Hitler may be the second Messiah.

**Isaac Amsel an 18-year old boy and witness at the trial; he is the son of Isaac Amsel senior, former member of the search party killed earlier in a skirmish in So Paulo; he joined the party to avenge his father's death.Steiner 1981, p. 15.

**John Asher half-Jewish and reluctant "defence attorney" at the trial; fascinated by the capture of Bormann and the rumours circulating that Hitler may be alive, he had approached Nazi hunter Wiesenthal who directed him to Lieber; in spite of being an "outsider" (no ties to the Holocaust) Lieber assigned him to the search party because of his military training and his clear-headedness ("no metaphysical lusts, no cravings for retribution").Steiner 1981, p. 99.

*Teku local Indian tracker and independent witness at the trial; previously the search party's guide who had abandoned them when they insisted on entering uncharted regions of the jungle, he continued tracking them from a distance before revealing himself.

*Adolf Hitler now 90 years old, the former leader of the Third Reich had not died in the Fhrerbunker in Berlin, but escaped to South America and hid in the Amazon jungle.

Background and publication

George Steiner, literary critic for 'The New Yorker' and 'The New York Times', had written about the Holocaust in some of his previous books, including 'Anno Domini' (1964), 'Language and Silence' (1967) and 'In Bluebeard's Castle' (1971). Many of the ideas Steiner expresses in 'The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.' were reworked from these earlier works. Steiner told 'New York Times' editor D. J. R. Bruckner that this book arose out of his lifelong work on language. "Central to everything I am and believe and have written is my astonishment [...] that you can use human speech both to bless, to love, to build, to forgive and also to torture, to hate, to destroy and to annihilate."

Steiner wrote 'The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.' in 1975 and 1976 in Geneva, Switzerland, and the 120-page work originally appeared in the Spring 1979 issue of the United States literary magazine, 'The Kenyon Review'. Its first publication in book form, with minor revisions by Steiner, was as a paperback original in May 1981 by Faber and Faber in the United Kingdom. The first United States edition was published in hardcover in April 1982 by Simon & Schuster.


'The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.' was adapted for the theatre in 1982 by British playwright Christopher Hampton. It was staged in April 1982 at London's Mermaid Theatre under the direction of John Dexter with Alec McCowen playing the part of Adolf Hitler. McCowen won the 1982 Evening Standard Theatre Award for best actor for this performance. In 1983 the production moved to the United States where it played at the Hartford Stage Company in Hartford, Connecticut, directed by Mark Lamos and starring John Cullum as Hitler.

This book is the only work of fiction by Steiner to have been adapted for the stage.

Reaction and controversy

Reaction to the book was mixed. Anthony Burgess in 'The Observer' called it "astonishing", Christopher Booker of 'The Daily Telegraph' described it as a "powerful piece", and English author A. S. Byatt said it was a "masterpiece". It was also a finalist in the 1983 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Morris Dickstein of 'The New York Times' called it "a misconceived and badly executed novel, a sideshow distraction from the serious business of thinking through the unspeakable horrors of the Nazi era." The controversy grew further when the faithful stage adaptation ("too faithful" according to Steiner) was performed in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Hitler's speech at the end of the book disturbed many readers and critics. Steiner not only lets Hitler justify his past, he allows him the (almost) last word before the outside world invades. John Leonard, also of 'The New York Times', said that the passage in which Hitler claims that the Jews gave him his best ideas, and in return, Hitler gave them Israel, "is obscene". The fact that Steiner is Jewish made this speech in particular even more contentious. One critic, while acknowledging that Steiner always saw Hitler as "the incarnation of unprecedented and unparalleled evil", felt that there was no clear distinction in the book between Steiners own views and those of his fictional Hitler, even going so far as to accuse Steiner, who rejects Jewish nationalism and is a critic of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, of anti-Semitism.

In contrast, a 'Time' magazine article at the time felt that Steiner's intention for the Hitler speech was to use it to explore his previously stated belief "that Hitler wielded language as an almost supernatural force", drawing attention to Nazi hunter Emmanuel Lieber's warning from the book regarding Hitler: "There shall come a man who [...] will know the grammar of hell and teach it to others. He will know the sounds of madness and loathing and make them seem music."

Steiner responded to criticism that Hitler's speech in this book is unchallenged by saying that it had been done before: for example Satan's speech in Milton's 'Paradise Lost' (1667), and The Grand Inquisitor's speech in Dostoyevsky's 'The Brothers Karamazov' (1880). He also reminded the reader that Hitler's speech is balanced out earlier in the book by Lieber's long monologue on the horrors of the Holocaust. Finally, Steiner said that it is not Hitler who has the last word, but Teku, the Indian tracker, who shouts "Proven", possibly referring to the case against Hitler having been proven by his self-incriminatory speech. Teku is also the Hebrew word used to indicate that "there are issues here beyond our wisdom to answer or decide."

See also

*Adolf Hitler in popular culture

*The Holocaust in popular culture



Work cited


Category:1981 novels

Category:English novels

Category:Philosophical novels


Category:Holocaust literature

Category:Adolf Hitler in fiction

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