[T]o write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.
—Theodor Adorno (Minima Moralia, 1967)
Whether you like Daniel Quinn or not, based upon the philosophical musings stemming from the success of his Ishmael series, about the exploits of anenlightened guru ape, you have to give him credit for his temerity. His newest novel, After Dachau, is a brave book on two accounts: Quinn, an established bestseller and Turner Award winner, turned down big-money offers from the publishing giants and instead inked a deal with indie maverick Context Books, and the subject matter of After Dachau is a daring blend of psychological thriller, postmodern novel and New Age meandering in a scandalous revisionist world where few writers would dare tread.
Mallory Hastings, or at least her body, comes out of a coma in a New York hospital after a serious car accident, and immediately all around her know that something is amiss although she can speak she is deaf, and she has no recollection of a person named Mallory Hastings. Enter one Jason Tull, trust-fund rich and an expert in reincarnation who represents the non-profit research center We Live Again. Winning Mallory’s trust, as he is the only person who believes her, Jason persuades Mallory to leave the hospital so that he can study her and help her adjust to her new life.
It appears there is another soul inhabiting Mallory Hastings’ vessel. She is Gloria MacArthur, a model and expressionist painter who, seemingly at random, hurls expletives at Jason as he attempts to unravel her mystery. The pregnant tension between the two explodes during Jason’s incessant questioning:
“When was Gloria MacArthur born?”
“Of course A.D.”
“Did you have any younger brothers and sisters?”
“Why do you want to know that?”
“It’s not inconceivable that they might still be alive. If they were born in the 1930’s, they’d only ...”
“They’re dead! You killed them, you fucking cocksucker!”
Our orientation to both Jason and Gloria and their setting is instantly thrown into upheaval as Quinn expertly casts us into a disorienting world where we suddenly find that we’re in an alternate America several hundred years after Hitler and Germany won World War II. Strangely, this world of Hitler’s conquest is much like our own with a few major exceptions. People go to school and work and engage in typical discourse, but schoolchildren learn their history from Mein Kampf and Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and the Jewish people were wiped out at Dachau. In fact, the last is so much the crowning moment of this alternate history that “A.D.” now means “After Dachau” rather than “anno Domini” on the calendar. The slow, methodical extermination of all other non-Aryan peoples followed thereafter, and no one speaks of the genocidal wave with anything but a sense of manifest destiny. Quinn’s point, and one well taken, is that historiography radically orients our world, its epistemology, and its ethical values. Here Quinn toys with the reader as well. Have we also unquestioningly succumbed to a narrative? Even Jason, our world-disclosing narrator, the storyteller who has chartered our journey, whose words we take as the truth, is indifferent to the notion of genocide and sees it rather as a necessary means to an end.
Gloria provides a counterpoint to even Jason’s indifference by sharing her experiences as one half of the last black community in New York City. She takes Jason underground into the catacombs of the city and shows him her old hideout and the last remnants of her and her boyfriend’s artwork in an attempt to impress upon him the moral significance of genocide and struggle. A sobered Jason begins collecting old books by non-Aryans that he finds in the receiving house of a schoolmate’s bookstore. Though non-Aryan art is outlawed, a few examples still exist only because nobody appears to care about them, glossing them over without a thought. The government, however, takes notice of Jason’s new habits and kidnaps him, taking him to a remote location with little water and no food, where they tell him he cannot leave until he writes the correct three-word sentence: “No one cares.”
Undaunted, Jason returns to New York and opens an art gallery displaying books by Einstein, Jung, Kafka, and others, and the art of Gloria and her boyfriend. As readers we hope for the happy ending, the one where the power of such art and thought once again foments radical societal change. Quinn, however, is a realist. He knows that most revolutions take time. The opening is met with scorn and ridicule by the press and laypeople alike; it seems that indeed no one cares. Jason and Gloria, who are now engaged, press on anyway; their gallery will be a message that they care. But one night someone heaves a stone through the front window of the gallery someone else does care after all.
After Dachau is in many ways similar to that stone. Quinn heaves an artistic brick at our everyday way of being, our complacency, and allows us to contemplate scenarios that though fanciful nonetheless speak loudly to our current historiographical/epistemological milieu. Perhaps we too fudge over the ugliest moments of what made us what we are at this moment. We might not “care” in an empathetic sense, but at least our senses are sufficiently awakened for us to even consider a different way of thinking about what is common. Quinn’s symbolic use of underground art as a means of opening possibilities for understanding and protest, though obvious, serves as a reminder and endorsement of the power of radical art to affect others.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article