Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Exception by Christian Jungersen

The Exception is another book I was prompted to read by seeing the author at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival. Christian Jungersen’s novel is set in Denmark, and the main characters are a small group of women who work at an institution that researches genocide. An insidious form of office politics gradually poisons the relations between these women, and although Jungersen doesn’t try to equate office politics with genocide, the mechanisms of human cruelty are thoughtfully and troublingly explored. In college and for a few years afterward, I read a lot about the Holocaust as a kind of research project into the nature of evil. I learned a lot, especially from Raul Hilberg, about the mechanisms of genocide, but not much about the psychology. Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” didn’t seem to go nearly far enough. It seems that many of the books I was looking for at the time didn’t exist yet, so one of the most intriguing parts of The Exception for me was a series of articles written by Iben, one of the characters, on “The Psychology of Evil.” These are not only intelligent in themselves, but they footnote several (real) books that explore the problem of evil: Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing by James Waller Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher R. Browning The Roots of Evil by Ervin Staub Understanding Genocide ed. Leonard S. Newman and Ralph Erber

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