Wednesday, 10 February 2010


Like The Vampire Of Ropraz, Jacques Chessex's previous novel (see my review here) published in English translation by Bitter Lemon Press, A Jew Must Die is based on an historical crime, and like the first book it raised questions Swiss society did not necessarily want raised. But where Vampire was more concerned with the way society reacted to a crime, A Jew Must Die is more concerned first with the crime itself, the murder, in Payerne, of a Jewish cattle-merchant by Swiss Nazis, and by the lack of reaction from Swiss society to this crime. The beauty of the work, if beauty is the right word, is the way Chessex expands that lack of reaction into a wider indictment, an analysis using a Swiss microcosm of the awful phenomenon that was the Third Reich.

He does this in prose that is consciously bare, factual, its emotions controlled. Chessex grew up in the area where the murder took place; he was at school with the son of one of the killers, and there is something very Swiss about the cold rationality with which he presents his story. It is a tone which survives the translation by W. Donald Wilson, and since Wilson translated Vampire as well it is telling that he's able to convey Chessex's different voices so well.

There is also a fairy-tale, brothers Grimm feel to the story, particularly as the gang of ne'er do wells who make up the local Nazi party try to lure Arthur Bloch to his death on the pretext of buying a cow, one for which he appears to offer them a good deal. That they then butcher Bloch as they would an animal only heightens the monstrosity of the crime, but it is the relative lack of reaction from the locals which makes clear the parallel with the larger monstrosity that was the Holocaust, and the way the good burghers of Austria, Germany and more countries conspired with their silence and indifference to help it happen.

In the character of Fernand Ischi, the local gauleiter, Chessex both sets him apart and fits him into his community. Swiss authorities handed out severe sentences to the murderers, but the reaction of the locals was to ignore it, as if it had never happened. Yet when Chessex moves to the present, and himself, he discovers that in some ways nothing has changed in his small world.
Arthur Bloch's tombstone read Gott Weiss Warum. God Knows Why. Though in supernatural terms that may well be true, in this world, it is too pat a response. It is a telling and perfect amibiguity that lies at the heart, just beneath the perfect surface, of this novella.

Chessex died last October, my obituary was published in the Guardian two months later, you can link to that here, and to my IT posting here. The Last Skull Of M. DeSade, his last novel, is scheduled to appear from Bitter Lemon next year.

A Jew Must Die by Jacques Chessex Bitter Lemon Press, £6.99 ISBN 9781904738510

NOTE: This review also appears at Crime Time (


dlwilson26 said...

That book sounds very similar in theme and tone to Andrea Maria Schenkel's "Murder Farm." In her book you eventually learn about a murder from the reports of the neighbors of a small village. There is the same "no nothingness" attitudes, the supression of the truth, and cover of individual criminal acts merged with those of the state.

I would be interesting to read the two novels back-to-back.

Michael Carlson said...

That's very interesting. I havent read Murder Farm but Ice Cold does bear comparison (you can find my review elsewhere at IT) and the tone is very similar indeed...I will have to turn to Murder Farm soon...thanks..