The Order of the Day by Éric Vuillard review – creeping towards catastrophe

Aphoristic tableaux from the lead-up to the second world war build into a dazzling work of black comedy and political disaster

On the way to Austria for the Anschluss of 1938, the German army broke down. The roads were clogged with a traffic jam of tanks. In order to make the scheduled parade in Vienna, the Germans loaded the vehicles on to trains – “and so,” we learn, “the trains hauled away the armour the way you’d transport circus equipment.”

In this obsidian gemstone of a book, the novelist and film-maker Éric Vuillard uses such details – moments of farce, historical flotsam – to conduct a powerful argument against the inevitability of history. We are used, he notes, to thinking of the German war machine as unopposable, but in 1938, “Blitzkrieg” was nothing more than a hopeful slogan – “just a bunch of stalled Panzers”. The idea was, in fact, inspired by the military writings of one Maj Gen JFC Fuller, who became an enthusiastic fascist, joining Oswald Mosley in “deploring the indolence of the parliamentary democracies and calling for a more rousing form of government”.

If that sounds like other people you’ve heard of recently, from the new Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro to Steve Bannon via various far right figures – well, that is the point, all the more powerful for not needing to be overtly made. “We never fall twice into the same abyss,” Vuillard writes. “But we always fall the same way, in a mixture of ridicule and dread.”

The book takes the form of a series of historical tableaux occurring in the lead-up to the second world war. The first is in February 1933, when Hermann Göring and Adolf Hitler invite 24 German industrialists to the palace of the president of the Reichstag, in order to encourage donations to the Nazi party. National socialism, they explain, is very pro-business. And after all, “Economic activity demanded calm and stability” – which might remind the reader of the good cheer with which the markets greeted the election of Bolsonaro. The industrialists – representing companies still with us today, including Siemens, Allianz and Bayer – duly pay up.

Another president comes to mind when Hitler, blackmailing the Austrian chancellor during a meeting at the Bergdof, experiences an outburst of crazed magniloquence. “He said that in Hamburg he was going to build the largest bridge in the world. And then … he added that soon he would put up the tallest buildings.” It need not be added that the Führer intended to build a big, beautiful wall. Of another Nazi installed in his government, meanwhile, the Austrian chancellor pleads “he’s a moderate Nazi, really just a patriot”.

Workers from the Krupp steel mill in Rheinhausen, 1988.
Workers from the Krupp steel mill in Rheinhausen, 1988. Photograph: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

Only once, in a book viscous with shabby capitulations and dank dealings, does the author allow himself a passage of outright phantasmagorical horror. One of the Nazi-donating industrialists, Gustav Krupp, has a vision in 1944 of a crowd of corpses advancing towards him in his drawing room. They are the people assigned to his factories by the SS as slave labour, whose deaths through overwork and malnutrition were greatly profitable throughout the war to many of Krupp’s comrades: “BMW hired in Dachau … IG Farben … operated a large factory inside the camp at Auschwitz.” Vuillard observes acidly that Krupp’s own company, now the steel conglomerate ThyssenKrupp, omits all mention of such inconvenient matters on its corporate website.

In Mark Polizzotti’s translation, the prose has an aphoristic gleam. Vuillard writes in passing of “the great, decent fallacy of work”, which reduces “the entire epic of our lives to a diligent pantomime”. And he is brilliant on the authoritarian’s relationship to the law, when describing how Hitler insisted that the Austrian president must accept his chancellor’s resignation. “It’s strange how the most dyed-in-the-wool tyrants still vaguely respect due process,” he comments. “It’s as if power isn’t enough for them, and that they take special pleasure in forcing their enemies to perform … the same rituals that they are even then demolishing.”

The Order of the Day won 2017’s Prix Goncourt for fiction, and is described by the UK publishers as a “novel”, but it stretches the definition of that word a long way. In French it calls itself a récit – an account – and is really a historical essay with literary flourishes. The selection of facts creates surreal patterns, as when Vuillard reveals that Joachim von Ribbentrop, while Germany’s ambassador to London, had paid rent to Neville Chamberlain to live in one of the Englishman’s Belgravia properties. And perhaps a time the author describes pointedly as one “dominated by a mysterious respect for lies” is best captured with a measure of poetic licence.

However you decide to categorise it, this is a thoroughly gripping and mesmerising work of black comedy and political disaster. It seems designed single-mindedly to remind us that, as it says, “Great catastrophes often creep up on us in tiny steps.”

The Order of the Day by Éric Vuillard, translated by Mark Polizzotti, is published by Picador. To order a copy for £11.43 (RRP £12.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Contributor

Steven Poole

The GuardianTramp

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