What is justice? What makes right actions right? Is it ever right, under any circumstances, to take a life? How do we treat the folksy mantra, “an eye for an eye?” These are all questions that Eli Roth’s short story “Valdivia” raised when I finished it, a story from Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Book of Nightmares.
My “relationship” with Eli Roth’s work is an interesting one. I find myself fascinated by his films and the uncomfortable ground he’s willing to tread, though I’m often prone to critiquing seemingly problematic elements of his work. At least, such was the case after I saw The Green Inferno, and then again when I saw Knock Knock. I can’t really see myself being best buds with him but I’m always excited to see what he’ll do next. Even if my thinking tends to differ from his, he has an alluringly creative mind. From the vantage point of a horror fan, the dude’s seriously twisted, but in a good way. Which is why when I opened The Blumhouse Book of Nightmares last night I was immediately attracted to Roth’s name, next to the title of a 15-page short story called “Valdivia.”
As a warning, this review will contain spoilers. “Valdivia” takes place in Chile. Our 35-year-old protagonist has been meandering listlessly around California; he has everything he could possibly want, but he’s bored and apathetic. So, he does what most of us will never have the luxury to do: he quits his job and hops a plane to Santiago, Chile, at his friend Nico’s urging. (Nico is certain that Chile is much better than America, if only because Chilean women are less “up tight” – translate that phrase as you will. Easier to sleep with?)
Chile, as it turns out, does not provide more solace for the protagonist. He ambles from party to party with Nico, hitting on women 15 years younger than him who he’s fairly sure aren’t into him. The opening of the story seems partly devoid of depth – a bunch of 30-somethings subsisting off the always-the-same party scene, salivating over “hot girls” like they’re in their 20’s and living for the rush of a buzz and a hookup. However, the protagonist’s subtle angst, his own understanding that he’s jaded and can’t seem to find satisfaction or meaning, adds a layer of depth to a story that otherwise reads like an entourage of girls and booze, a tedious bacchanal that takes place in another country. Anyone who’s ever felt a bit bored can sympathize the narrator, who seems awkwardly but inescapably situated between a quarter-life crisis and a mid-life crisis. (I guess he’s experiencing a one-third-life crisis).
The story takes a twist toward the intriguing when a beautiful blonde model named Sophie enters a party one night. Her blondeness is significant, because most Chileans are dark-haired. Nico explains to the protagonist that Sophie is blonde because she’s from Valdivia, a predominantly German city that protected Nazis who fled Germany after WWII and – according to Nico – continues to be a sanctuary for those expressing Nazi sentiments. Nico even asserts that Valdivia had an operating concentration camp until the 1990’s, when it was shut down and transformed into a tourist attraction. In case you’re wondering, there is a city in Chile called Valdivia. It has a partly German population and its own unique Oktoberfest – a festival which is also mentioned in the story – but I didn’t find any mention of a concentration camp or Nazis. In fact, according to the “ever-so-reliable” Wikipedia, Germans started settling in Valdivia in 1840, well before World War II. Which raises the question: does local lore coincide with Roth’s story, and is there some truth to that “lore”? One might need to visit Chile to find out.
In any case, our protagonist – who is Jewish – becomes fixated with the prospect of traveling to Valdivia. He even has bizarre daydreams about being stopped at the train platform, seized by dogs, and taken hostage because of his Jewish background – an interesting attempt on Roth’s part to examine the wild and irrational fancies of a human mind that seems troublingly bored with what most people would consider a comfortable, good life. Notably, Nico and his friend Igor build Valdivia up in the protagonist’s mind, asserting that they refuse to go there because the place is an insidious Nazi enclave. Perhaps because our narrator is so jaded with the routines of day to day existence, he sets off for Valdivia on his own. As a reader, at this point, I start to think, Yikes, Roth is pretty twisted, what’s going to happen to the protagonist? If The Green Inferno taught me anything, it taught me that Roth likes gore and torture, so I began to brace myself for those horror elements in this story.
At first, however, not much happens. The narrator books a room in Valdivia to spend the night and finds that it’s like most other tourist cities. Then he becomes bored (again) and regrets booking the hotel. He ends up in a pub full of German beer, drinking alone, when he sees Sophie and her sister (who, Roth makes a point to tell us, is heavy, frumpy, and unfriendly, which seems a bit like a negative stereotype of overweight people). They chat, and Sophie invites him to dinner with her family, at their home, the next night.
Dinner passes normally, but one chair at the table is empty: grandpa, as Sophie calls him, usually spends his time upstairs now. After dinner Sophie leads the protagonist upstairs to say hi to Grandpa, who’s hooked up to an oxygen tank. The protagonist sets his eyes on a withered old man who looks more like 100 than like a typical, 80-some year-old grandfather. Of course, Roth had to allow for this age observation, because according to the pictures around his room, grandpa was a former Nazi, and if he were in his 80’s he would have been too young to be an active participant in the Holocaust.
When Sophie leaves the room to help her mother with dishes – something that it’s socially unacceptable for men to help with in Chile, according to the story – the protagonist is left with grandpa (who, unsurprisingly, he has little sympathy for) and his war pictures. I was intrigued by the protagonist’s initial action. He draws a number on his arm with a sharpie, as if he were a tattooed Holocaust victim, and repeats the word “geist,” which is German for ghost. Anyone in control of their faculties would see past the simple farce, but grandfather’s mind must be atrophying as much as his body, because he trembles in terror and becomes noticeably upset, though he can hardly speak.
But the protagonist’s next action is a little more shocking. He manipulates the oxygen tank so the gas kills the grandfather, then turns the nozzle back to its original position and leaves the room nonchalantly. He uses the German word for “shower” as he’s twisting the nozzle – a clever way to say that he’s re-enacting the gas chambers of the Holocaust. He professes, after the killing, that he feels alive again for the first time since childhood. At the story’s beginning, he laments the passing of his childhood summers. After he kills the ailing Nazi, everything looks fresh, vivid, and pleasing, and he skips out of Sophie’s home, contentedly.
This is another example of me basically disagreeing with what I think Roth is saying, but still really enjoying his art. When I first read about Valdivia in the story, I imagined a sinister, antiquated place where something unfortunate would befall the narrator. But Roth writes a highly deft short story and creates the unexpected end-twist well. The whole time I read, I was fearing the residual Nazi sentiments that might harm the Jewish protagonist. As it turns out, the Jewish protagonist was the perpetrator, the one to fear.
The way I read Roth in this story is that the protagonist found some version of justice – for humanity or Judaism in particular – and the retribution revives a soul that was previously stagnant, albeit for presumably different reasons. I don’t see this story as a depiction of a troubled individual who’s simply inclined to kill and gets excited when he does; the protagonist seems like the epitome of a “normal guy” throughout the story. The degree of aliveness and serenity the protagonist feels after killing the ailing Nazi – though he’s only referred to as Sophie’s grandfather in the story – seems to suggest there was something inherently right about the act, that it was, almost, endorsed by a Higher Power – call the power God, or whatever you’d like. After all, I’ve dabbled in spirituality more these past few years, and it’s often the case that we feel better when we do what we know is right, or what we think we know is right. Finding peace and joy is a spiritual experience. Indeed, the protagonist’s whole walk away from Sophie’s house read like a spiritual experience.
Which raises the question: was the protagonist’s action right? I read too many internet comment sections, so I know we’re quick to leap to conclusions, at least in this country (i.e. anyone in any way involved in the Holocaust deserves to die). And the Holocaust was a really horrendous thing, a truth that was especially salient to me when I read Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning this winter. I may say in one breath that I feel my spirituality calls me to love all people, but I feel like I’d be burned by the flames of hell, and taken away in handcuffs, if I professed to love Hitler. We rightfully hate the Holocaust, but we’re supposed to hate it, and everything associated with it. Though it’s well-founded dogma, it still seems like cultural dogma: we’re called to hate anyone associated with Germany during this time period, on the basis of the person’s association.
Which is to say that Roth’s protagonist was still killing a person, but we may not be inclined to view him that way. “Grandpa” may well have been young, impressionable, and easily programmed by society when he took part in Nazi activities. He may have been a stupid kid, like Ralph in The Sound of Music. He may have come greatly to regret his role in the Holocaust (and the protagonist, by the way, knows very little about the grandfather’s role.) So would information like that matter? Can you have decency in you if you’re a Nazi or an ex-Nazi, and does your decency matter in light of what you were involved in? More importantly, does one take justice into his own hands and kill someone’s grandfather, even if that grandfather may have played a part in killing many other grandfathers – and mothers, and fathers, and brothers, and sisters –years ago? I can see the protagonist’s rationale, but I’m uncomfortable with it. Really, it’s vigilantism, and it scares me. I’ll accept it from Captain America, but not from an ordinary guy taking a beer tour of Chile and hitting on hot girls. The beginning of Roth’s story mentions a Chilean party full of people from around the world. The story is knowingly global, and so is grandpa’s existence. It’s as if our global society didn’t do enough to bring this man to justice, so Roth’s protagonist takes things into his own hands. But is he too impulsive?
Maybe “grandpa” made a mature, rational decision to join the Nazis and never regretted it. Maybe there was not a shred of good in this ailing old man. Maybe he was malevolent and despicable and hateful to his last breath. Even if he were, throughout his whole life, every bit as evil as we’d imagine every Nazi to be, and more, is anyone justified in killing him, in doing, to him, what he did to others? If you haven’t conjectured yet from this post, I’m not much a fan of Capital Punishment, because I think there are major shortcomings to a practice that seeks to ameliorate murder with murder. But then, this guy was a Nazi. Does he deserve the same consideration as your garden variety murderer?
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that the protagonist’s murder was justifiable, though I may argue he didn’t have much information and was harming the old man’s family as much or more than the old man. Even if the act (though unnecessary to do to a man dying already) was justifiable, does killing another human being ever make a normal person feel alive, peaceful, and content? I would buy the story more (though it would probably be needlessly stretched out) if the protagonist had some Poe-like post-killing psychological guilt complex, but he doesn’t – he feels liberated. And I have to assume that no matter who you’re killing, killing other human beings makes normal people feel agitated and guilty (as most war survivors will probably attest to). I love Roth’s twist ending, and the protagonist’s entire sojourn to Valdivia is fraught with suspense, but the ending strikes me as odd. I can’t say that Roth is wrong, per se, only that we have very different ideas of justice and human nature. But who am I to say? Read the story yourself and see what you think.