I read Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization in galleys, obsessively, for hours at a stretch, in the beautiful northern Italian town of Pavia. Pear trees and plum trees were blossoming. The old university buildings glowed palely in the springtime sun. By the time I finished the book I felt something I had never felt before: fury at pacifists.
This was surely not what Baker had in mind. He dedicates Human Smoke to “American and British pacifists” who “tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening.” If everything you knew about World War II came out of this book, you might well agree with Baker: “They failed, but they were right” (the galleys, but not the published book, continue: “Winston Churchill, I’m sorry to say, was wrong”). Baker builds his case against the “good war” in a 471-page collage of scraps and snippets drawn mostly from contemporary accounts–newspaper reports, letters, diaries, memoirs. You watch the war unfold all over the world, as if in real time. Here are the bullies, intent on blood and glory: Hitler, of course; Churchill, delighting in bombing German cities; Roosevelt, refusing to support a bill to admit 20,000 Jewish children as refugees while secretly laying plans to join the war despite his campaign promise to stay out. And over here is a small, valiant cast of people who rejected jingoism, hatred and violence: Clarence Pickett of the American Friends Service Committee; Jeannette Rankin, who cast the lone vote in Congress against both world wars; Muriel Lester and other aid workers, who struggled unsuccessfully against the British ban on food shipments to feed the refugees of Europe; writers and diarists like Christopher Isherwood, Mihail Sebastian and Victor Klemperer. The antiwar conviction of these humane individuals is so vivid and so passionate you start to feel that it all could have turned out differently, if only. But is that true?
In its length and bagginess, Human Smoke feels different from Baker’s novels, which are obsessive claustrophobic miniatures: two disembodied strangers talk on the phone about sex (Vox); one friend tries to dissuade another from assassinating the President (Checkpoint). But really his method is the same: Baker forces you to share his tunnel vision by rigidly excluding what doesn’t fit and by giving everything he includes more or less equal weight. Thus, Hitler is an anti-Semite, and so is Roosevelt–one would go on to exterminate 6 million Jews, and the other thought there were too many Jews at Harvard. If you are naïve enough to believe that the United States went to war to save the Jews, Human Smoke will disabuse you. But the reader who is surprised to learn that neither Roosevelt nor Churchill did a thing to prevent the Holocaust is unlikely to know enough to question Baker’s slanted version of other events.