Georg Lethem and I have a complicated relationship (which makes sense, given that he has a complicated relationship with himself). On one hand, you would be hard pressed to find a more despicable literary character. His litany of transgressions includes murder, spousal abuse, marital rape, vague pedophilic impulses, and general assholery. This is a man who kidnaps his niece’s puppy in order to conduct medical experiments on it. To top it all off, he’s an unreliable narrator, a cardinal sin for the earnest reader. On the other hand, I can’t help but root for him, for Georg Lethem is one of the more fully-realized, human characters I’ve ever encountered in literature. Sure his failings skew to the extreme, but his misguided fumblings and his tragic inability to connect to others makes him almost endearing. And he’s got a dark, sardonic humor to boot.
For these reasons, George Lethem: Physician and Murderer is a difficult book to read: it makes you feel uncomfortable with yourself. Don’t get me wrong. The novel is intricately crafted, and while the packing is a bit slow at times, it is never boring. No, the difficulty this novel presents lies in the unsettling emotion it evokes. Its power is in its ability to get you to identify with someone no one has any business liking. Spending time in the mind of a madman, whose pathos can’t be pigeonholed into any psychiatric diagnosis, can be bad for your health.
If this sounds like too much, it can be. Still, this novel is a pleasure, if a guilty one in the truest sense of the word. Part Crime and Punishment, part Moby Dick, and part Papillion, Georg Lethem manages to be darker than all three while somehow still maintain a humorous edge. The plot recounts the experiences of Georg after he has been convicted for his wife’s murder and sentenced to life hard labor in an unnamed tropical island C., which is in the midst of a yellow fever epidemic. Georg, ever the scientist, is attempting to perform a scientific analysis of himself, to faithfully record his actions so as to account for his own motivations. If this sounds like an impossible task, it is. Georg not only deceives the reader, he deceives himself.
The question running through Georg’s experiment on his self—his hypothesis if you will—is whether science can redeem one’s humanity. Upon arriving in exile, Georg immediately is commissioned into conducting bacteriological research on yellow fever. If he can discover how the disease is transmitted, will his past sins be atoned? Here some historical context helps to illuminate the stakes of this question. First published in 1931, the novel was written by a physician at the height of what one contemporary called “bacteriomania” in medicine. The discovery of the bacterial origin of disease spawned a revolution in medicine, as well as some unrealistic extrapolations. Bacteriologists were seriously promising the end of all disease. The key scientists (i.e. Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch) were international stars. In conducting bacteriological research, Georg is participating in the purest scientific pursuit of the era. If this can’t save him, nothing can.
Weiss thus uses Georg as a platform from which to investigate the potential and limits of science. Georg makes some important discoveries that might benefit mankind. But in the process, he callously experiments on individuals, sometimes sending them to premature deaths. His honesty is brutal: “Illnesses interested me, the ill did not,” (14). But when science serves itself and forgets its place in the larger scheme of things, its effects can be horrific, witness the deaths George leaves in his wake. The final verdict is that science is neither inherently good nor bad. In this way, Weiss, an Austrian of Jewish heritage, has written a prescient novel on the very dilemma that would reach its horrific apotheosis in the Nazi experiments a decade later.
But this novel is not just some high-minded analysis of the proper role of science. Weiss, through Georg, spins some excellent yarns. The novel is punctuated by unforgettable scenes and poignant episodes. There is a hilarious account of a polar expedition gone wrong; led by Georg’s father, the experience turned the man into a “poisonous pessimist’ (179) and, in turn, an abusive father. A modern Captain Ahab whose Moby Dick are rats, Georg’s father is brought down by rodent nemeses that become his lifelong obsession. This obsession culminates in “lessons” for Georg. Lessons that include locking the boy in a closet with rats for days on end and forcing him to watch a rat copulation punctuated by rat matricide (I’m trying to repress this scene). Then there’s Georg complicated, but loving, friendship with a homosexual prisoner, March, to whom he is literally chained. This friendship is strange to say the least, threaded as it is by a persistent sexual tension (did they or didn’t they?) that reads surprisingly contemporary and progressive for the time. And finally there is the brilliantly rendered accounts of the bacteriological explanations that, while perhaps a bit too detailed (we learn a lot about the anatomy of mosquitoes), effectively convey both the romance and drudgery of research.
Persistent through all this is Georg himself, and it is his unique voice that intrigues and entices. His motivations remain opaque throughout the book, but not out of any conscious effort on Georg’s part. He seems as bewildered with himself as the reader is. But is this really surprising? After all, who can account for their own motivations?
Despite the veneer of honesty, I can’t shake the feeling that Georg might just be a pathological liar who believes his own lies. After all, on the second to last page, “Georg” admits that “Georg Lethem” is not his real name. Oh, George, I thought I knew thee. But thanks for the deception, whoever you are. In learning about you I learn about myself.