when the bad guy tells the tale

Self-portrait of Bruno Schulz, Jewish artist protected by SS Officer Felix Landau

I am in the middle of writing a short story about a Nazi who protects a Jewish artist. It’s a tricky line to walk; my Nazi, who is very loosely based on Felix Landau, an SS officer who was first a member of the Einsatzgruppen and later in charge of the Jewish forced labor details in Drohobych, Poland, must be logical to himself, even sympathetic, in his own mind.

And that’s a difficult place to go. He’s a sociopath, an unfeeling killer on the job, but he passionately loves his wife and his family, and he comes to feel very protective of this artist, whom, he senses, already has one foot in the next world.

Every day, I have to get into this man’s body and walk around in him. He believes he is a regular guy with a regular job. I introduce his brutal moments in an offhand way, just part of his working day, showing the reader that he is a self-deluding monster. I give him ordinary thoughts, an ordinary routine, ordinary emotions. The twist is that the story is seen through his eyes, and he doesn’t see himself as a bad man. Since it’s me who’s telling the story, me who is creating his system of logic, it is also me making up excuses for him and trying to humanize him. I have to constantly remind myself, that however he sees himself, he is a killer with an untroubled conscience.

To some extent, you have to love every one of your characters to make them live. And from an academic standpoint, it’s certainly a useful writing exercise. But let me tell you, it is hard to write this guy. Living inside his head, I keep slipping over to the forbidden zone, seeing events from his point of view, making his worst actions explicable, making him just another kind of victim of World War II. A weird place to go, when you’re the child of Holocaust survivors.

Wish me luck in getting this thing finished with the original thesis still intact–a bad man who feels nothing meeting a good man who feels everything.