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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Jew Must Die

Jacques Chessex

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To purchase A Jew Must Die

Title: A Jew Must Die
Author: Jacques Chessex
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 92 pages
Original in: French
Availability: A Jew Must Die - US
A Jew Must Die - UK
A Jew Must Die - Canada
Un Juif pour l'exemple - Canada
A Jew Must Die - India
Un Juif pour l'exemple - France
Ein Jude als Exempel - Deutschland
Un ebreo come esempio - Italia
  • French title: Un Juif pour l'exemple
  • Translated by W.Donald Wilson

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Our Assessment:

B+ : simple, quick, effective

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 22/2/2010 Denis MacShane
The Guardian A 19/2/2010 Laura Wilson
L'Humanité . 19/2/2009 Jean-Claude Lebrun
The Independent A 5/2/2010 Jane Jakeman
Télérama . 31/1/2009 Nathalie Crom

  From the Reviews:
  • "This short novel is one of the most powerful accounts of the horrors of anti-Semitism as it descended into mass Jew-killing. (...) Well-translated by W Donald Wilson, the prose is taut, verbs and nouns in short bare sentences driving the story forward to its gruesome end." - Denis MacShane, Financial Times

  • "(A) masterpiece. (...) There are no plot twists here and no sensationalism either, just a harrowing and thought-provoking picture of fear and prejudice that will stay with you long after you finish this small but intensely powerful book." - Laura Wilson, The Guardian

  • "Son roman participe de la réflexion historique sur la nature à la fois banale et exceptionnelle du nazisme. Il laisse aussi transparaître une interrogation sur soi-même. Car à brasser cette matière, Jacques Chessex ne peut s’exempter d’éprouver de la honte. S’il écrit sur cette barbarie, c’est qu’il lui a fallu toujours vivre avec elle. En toute lucidité. Mais dans une constante douleur." - Jean-Claude Lebrun, L'Humanité

  • "The language in which Chessex describes this is pared to an absolute minimum of sensationalism. Yet his descriptions are so close and precise that the contrast between the human butchers and the rich kindness of the natural world takes on a metaphysical intensity. How can we make sense of such a world, and who is to blame ? (...) This brief, disturbing masterpiece goes to the heart of the creative process." - Jane Jakeman, The Independent

  • "De sa plume sèche, lapidaire, l'écrivain excelle à suggérer les réserves inouïes de haine et de perversité que dissimulent les trop paisibles paysages de cette Suisse préten­dument neutre et sage qui est sienne." - Nathalie Crom, Télérama

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A Jew Must Die -- as the stronger English title has it (the French original has it as a Jew being made an example of) -- is a very slim work that is as much documentary as fiction. Chessex was born in Payerne in Switzerland -- the small-town setting of the episode --, and he was eight years old when the events he describes took place in 1942; his classmates were the sons and daughters of some of the principals in the story.
       Chessex is moved to write the story because when he was a child it was clear that:

Arthur Bloch is not spoken of. Arthur Bloch, that was before. An old story. A dead story.
       But the adult Chessex recognizes that not that much has changed, and that this is an incident -- like too many others -- that was never properly dealt with.
       Chessex describes early 1940s Payerne, where there are characters that believe a Nazi takeover is imminent and desirable. Overall, the war is far off, but times are difficult and many have suffered. Here, as elsewhere, Jews are convenient scapegoats:
     In these remote countrysides the hatred of the Jews has a taste of soil mulled over in bitterness, turned over and ruminated, with the glister of pig's blood and the isolated cemeteries from where the bones of the dead still speak, of misappropriated inheritances, suicides, bankruptcies and embittered, frustrated bodies a hundred times humiliated.
       Those responsible in town for maintaining order turn a blind eye towards the hate-mongering:
They'd rather cut out their tongues, rupture their eyes and ears, than admit the they know what is being plotted in the garage. In the back rooms of certain cafés. In the woods. At Pastor Lugrin's.
       What the local Nazi wannabes decide is that:
The time is ripe for the band to set an example for Switzerland and for the Jewish parasites on its soil. So a really representative Jew must be chosen without delay, one highly guilty of filthy Jewishness, and disposed of in spectacular manner. Threats and warnings. A good house-cleaning. Purification. A means to hasten the final solution. Sieg heil !
       Berne cattle-dealer Arthur Bloch fits the bill. And he's due in town later in the month, to attend a livestock fair. And so he is made an example of.
       Bloch is a decent, successful man; what happens to him is almost ridiculous in its savagery and ineptness. The thugs that attack him -- and the puppetmasters that orchestrate the crime -- are caught up in such blinding hatred that they can't see the pointlessness of their actions. Needless to say, it neither helps their pathetic cause nor serves as any sort of example -- except to demonstrate how easily poisonous thoughts can take hold even in what is considered a safe and civil society. Years later Chessex encounters ideological ringleader Pastor Lugrin: the church-man is unrepentant, even after serving some fourteen years in prison, coming out: "more ardent than ever, virulent in the density of his hatred " (and telling Chessex that his only regret is: "that I didn't bring others to my friends' attention", i.e. that just the one Jew was made an example of).
       Chessex describes what happened, what led up to it, and then the aftermath in relatively quick and simple terms. He does have a tendency to wax lyrical at times: this is not the straightforward prose favored by most Holocaust authors, as, for example, he writes:
     But evil is astir. A powerful poison is seeping in. O Germany, the abominable Hitler's Reich ! O Nibelungen, Wotan, Valkyries, brilliant, headstrong Friedrich
       Yet he pulls back when need be -- and, most effectively, steps to the fore when the time comes:
     I am telling a loathsome story, and feel ashamed to write a word of it. I feel ashamed to report what was said: words, a tone of voice, deeds that are not mine but that I make mine, like it or not, when I write.
       But he recognizes the need for speaking out, for writing about it -- despite (or: especially because of) the deep-rooted shame which still has hold over Payerne. And, though it goes unmentioned, and though the focus is only on this single act of terrible, pure evil, it obviously is meant to be a reminder that all claims of tolerance and functioning social order rest on very shaky foundations. The hatred and irrationality described in this book are not that far removed from what led to Switzerland's recent vote banning minarets, or similarly intolerant behavior and attitudes found all across the world. Civil society, Chessex suggests, is separated from barbarism by only the smallest of distances -- and not confronting it, immediately and forcefully, when it is first glimpsed makes us all complicit in the spread of barbarism.
       A powerful, small work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 January 2010

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A Jew Must Die: Reviews: Other books by Jacques Chessex review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swiss author Jacques Chessex was born in 1934 and died in 2009.

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