“The Arabs are stupid, lazy, and smelly,” the late German writer and visual artist Wolfgang Herrndorf said of the characters in his darkly comic existential spy novel Sand. “The Europeans, without a single exception, are arrogant racists and pederasts, the Americans torture whoever crosses their path, and the people pulling the strings are—naturally—the Jews.” Originally published in German in 2011, a time when satire had only begun to be killed off, the first English translation of the novel was released as a New York Review Books Classics edition this past June.
Sand takes place in an unnamed North African country immediately before and after the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre, an event that clearly weighs on the characters but appears only fleetingly in the text. The novel’s Jewish conspiracy hinges on “ultracentrifuge” designs that are about to be handed off to one of Israel’s enemies yet are sought by a motley, international assortment of thugs, spies, and gangsters. Complicating matters is that the man who accidentally comes into possession of the designs has inconveniently lost almost his entire memory after waking up near a mutilated body in the desert.
For all of its convolutions, Sand often returns to the idea of the desert as civilization’s antithesis: It’s the wilderness where the rules of a rationally organized society cease to have any meaning, where any crime can be concealed and every individual is equally alone. There’s barely a human cruelty that isn’t at least alluded to over the novel’s 450 pages, which are rife with torture, murder, kidnapping, genocide, terrorism, mass displacement, and various other evils. But Herrndorf’s winkingly and inaccurately non-PC description of his novel (which is quoted in the New York Review edition’s incredibly helpful afterword) hints that Sand is a work of misdirection, a narrative puzzle whose basic plot really only clarifies in its final act. It only seems like a descent into complete nihilism.
The emphasis on moral and physical wastelands is just one of many finely-executed literary head-fakes. Sand is always motioning towards atrocities happening off-page, in another continent or another time—beginning with the fact that the novel’s protagonist is a man who has lost his memory and is haunted by the reasonable suspicion that he’s done something unspeakable in his pre-amnesiac life. There are awful things depicted in Sand, but the true horrors are just outside of sight and memory. That includes the ultimate horror, a topic that a German writer of Hernndorf’s talents does not approach blithely in a novel that ends up making the Jews’ right to self-defense a major theme.
Roughly a third of the way through, Helen, the mysterious and ambiguously Jewish American woman who picks up the man with no memory at a desert gas station, meets a childhood friend, Michelle, at a desert hippie commune where four people had recently been murdered. Michelle is a flighty tarot card specialist and one of the surviving commune residents. During a tense reunion in which the two women sense just how unknowably different the other has become during their years apart, they stop to observe a swarm of ants attacking maggots at the base of a corn stalk.
“It’s nature. It is how it is. And it’s good that way. The maggots and all the other small animals and we humans, too, in the end we’re just a part of a greater whole, a collective project,” says Michelle. “I suspect that if you could ask them, your theory would get more votes in the ant camp than the maggot camp,” Helen quips. “Everything belongs together, life and death, whether or not we are conscious of it. I don’t fret over it,” says Michelle. Helen’s one-word rebuttal: “Auschwitz.”
Helen is one of the more depraved characters in Herrndorf’s tour of depravities and yet her refusal to accept a natural order in which the powerless are unendingly subjugated is one of the book’s few moments of idealism. Those who see the war between ant and maggot as confirmation of cosmic harmony—rather than evidence of the inherent chaos of nature, a condition which humans must resist if life is to be given any meaning—are dangerously deluded. A moment later the reader is given an even more unmistakable sign of where the author’s sympathies lie when Michelle begins ranting about Israeli oppression of the Palestinians. “What the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians, that’s no different from Auschwitz … in essence it is worse,” she says—words that, in a German novel, mark their speaker as a moral illiterate.
It’s too simple to say that Sand celebrates the revenge of the maggots, or argues the inherent justice of Israel’s excesses. The book is a fevered nightmare, not a straightforward polemic on behalf of anything. Unlike the Michelles, self-confident moralists who feel an overwhelming need to pronounce on the Jews and their rightful place, Herrndorf’s writerly impulses led him away from strident judgement (and not just on the topic of the Jews, either: a torturer nick-named named Pliers proves to be one of the novel’s more principled characters). Herrndorf understood how moral certainty erases the horrors of the past in a world where memory is both malleable and fleeting.
The desert is nearer to civilization than we’d like to think, Herrndorf shows us in his strange and appalling masterpiece. But it is this nearness that makes the fight against chaos just,noble, and very often terrifying.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.