Nothing makes people angrier than to have an author take away one certainty without replacing it with another. This is only explanation I can think of for the brutality of some of the reviews of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke, his pointillist account of the beginning of World War II. I picked the book up from the remaindered table knowing nothing about it, although I enjoyed The Mezzanine a great deal when I read it years ago. And I was curious about the blurbs on the back of Human Smoke, one of which described it as possibly "the most compelling argument for peace ever assembled."
"Assembled" is right (although "argument" is a tougher issue) -- the book consists of vignettes, usually no more than half a page long and often drawn from newspapers as well as famous and not-so-famous memoirs. Each vignette contains an account of some event -- Albert Speer taking his father on a tour of some insane proposed Nazi architectural projects, or the trials of conscientious objectors from various countries -- along with a line stating the date on which the event occurred. Authorial comment is virtually absent, and Baker insisted in an interview with Charlie Rose, somewhat disingenuously, that his opinions are nowhere in the book.
I suspect that most people will react to Human Smoke the way I did. In the beginning, maybe the first 50 pages, it was thrilling, compulsive reading; points of detail appeared one after another, each marking off a little area of the world around the time of the war, a net closing in around a huge school of fish. But deeper into the book, I started getting a little bored; the holes in the net were too huge to catch anything at all, and the pointillist method started to seem like an easy way to avoid making a coherent argument.
And Baker clearly does have some arguments, which he makes largely by juxtaposition. He shows how the people who were most aggressive and militaristic in their attitude to Nazi Germany -- Churchill, for example -- were also the least generous towards the Jews trying to get out and all of the other people who were clearly going to suffer the most because of the war, while the pacifists -- who are usually characterized as cowardly or entirely blind to the amorality of the Nazi regime -- were much more active in trying to help the people that needed it.
Second, he illustrates that the Allies -- and, again, Churchill in particular -- had a large role in escalating the brutality and aimlessness of the slaughter by beginning civilian bombing campaigns and making mass starvation part of their war strategy. And, in what is certainly the most controversial implication of the book, he indicates that these decisions may well have led the Nazis to escalate the program of extermination which they had always planned, but only as one of several possible options for ridding their territory of Jews and other undesirables.
I should say at this point that I don't have nearly enough knowledge of the era to judge any of these claims, and certainly not the last one. One of the reasons this book can be frustrating is that Baker doesn't lay out the facts in a comprehensive way, where you can either be positively convinced under the weight of evidence or angrily accuse him of an obvious omission. So it's hard to finish Human Smoke feeling like it was a real contribution to the history of the war.
But it does, I think, hammer a couple of useful chinks in the wall of moral certainty that surrounds WWII more than any other war. And eventually, after I recognized that the book's narrative method would prevent it from fulfilling certain desires, I began to appreciate the disorienting buzz that it captured, the sense of being a normal person living through these events, looking in the papers every day and wondering what in the world might happen next. Because Baker can see that this confusion is in some ways closer to the truth than the false clarity that comes with hindsight.
As a responsible writer, Baker even throws sand in the face of what are clearly some of his own moral convictions: he has a vignette where someone points out the absurdity of a pacifist response to the Nazis. And he has several conflicting accounts of the Nazis plans for the Jews -- deportation to Madagascar is one of them -- without providing any guidance on which ones were seriously considered. He acknowledges that the facts are simply a mess, that any comprehensive explanation requires that too much be left out.
In the end, you simply don't know how the war could have been best fought (although clearly everyone should have been more generous to the refugees). Uncertainty is obviously one of Baker's goals, the one that I'm guessing has made several reviewers so angry, partially because it makes their job harder. Many of them have decided that Baker is making a simple case for pacifism, or arguing that the Allies were partially responsible for the Holocaust, neither of which he is actually doing. But these straw men are simple ways to dismiss the book, or at least to deal with it quickly.
In any case, although I wasn't hugely impressed, I'm glad I read it. If nothing else, there are dozens of fascinating details, and you make the acquaintance of several intelligent and inspiring men -- Mihail Sebastian, for example, and Victor Klemperer, whose diaries I both want to read now. And it makes the point, which somehow never stops needing to be made, that one should be suspicious of the humanitarian impulses of leaders who are willing to drop bombs on other people's cities and kill whoever happens to be around.