THE HUMAN POOL
Rumors about Willi Schmidt's actions during the Second World War were enigmatic, to say the least. He worked for U.S. Intelligence out of Switzerland; he cut black-market deals on the side; he rescued scores of Jews from the Nazis. Saint or sinner? Either way, Schmidt was strictly murky waters and reports of his death in 1945 surprised no one.
Sixty years later, Joe Hoover is convinced Schmidt is still alive, armed with a false name and a fortune in pharmaceuticals. For years, Hoover, former Intelligence courier for the American spymaster Allen Dulles, has been haunted by misgivings about his own wartime role in his boss's top-secret financial partnership with the Third Reich. Now, someone wants Hoover dead.
Back in Europe, Hoover discovers that operations he thought had ended long ago are still being played out. Forming an uneasy alliance with Vaughan, an undercover journalist investigating neo-Nazi traffic of Kurdish refugees, he begins to unravel a conspiracy that leads deep into his past, to his days mixing with Nazi officers in the supposedly neutral cities of Zurich, Istanbul, and Budapest, where enemies did deals over cocktails.
At each step, Hoover finds the shadow of Willi Schmidt and the specter of World War II's most grotesque and enduring legacy a trade in people: the human pool.
Set against a vivid historical backdrop, The Human Pool mixes fiction and fact to explosive effect. Chris Petit has crafted his finest novel yet a cosmopolitan, thinking-person's thriller that turns the world inside out and traces its veins: It spells nothing less than the rebirth of the great espionage novel.
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From The Human Pool: Vaughan
TWENTY-NINE PALMS, CALIFORNIA,
Here's the problem. I wrote this book once the way I was told to, as fiction, to a formula: sex by page such-and-such, with guns to follow. 'Tell it like it was,' my then editors urged. 'Make the reader stand next to you.' The thing is, nobody else's description, or the movies, prepare you for what it's like when it happens to you, and as for the one-liner that sold the story -- My Trip to Genocide Hell -- it belittles the facts and leaves me feeling ashamed. What they wanted was unimportant compared to the near invisible details which do the real damage.
The first time, I wrote it in the third person, cutting out the history and the shuttling between different characters. Unfortunately, it meant losing most of Hoover's diary. Being both old and a messy organiser, Hoover was regarded as an embarrassment and worth no more than a cameo as a Deep Throat. Hoover sprawls: old man's time. What they really objected to was that he is too cussed and remembers too much. He understands that life lacks narrative organisation, that it feels like something other than a story.
For my part, most of the time I felt as though I was in a rush of drowning. Also I have never read anything in fiction so chilling, or inadequate, as a transcript of a real torture interrogation, for its simultaneous ability and failure to convey what was going on. By what mental process does someone decide to write: Subject screams. Statement incomprehensible?
History misleads us, I have discovered, thanks to Hoover. We are taught that it is about things ending and beginning, that it is sequential, a progression of dates down the years, when in reality it is all about connections. The stuff that really scared me didn't even make it as footnotes in the version they wanted me to write -- like what was the real purpose of the sale of a large consignment of wooden huts by a construction company in neutral Switzerland to the Waffen SS in 1942? Or look at the word 'neutral': during the Second World War German goods trains were allowed to pass through Switzerland only so long as the contents were not armaments, which, of course, cattle trucks crammed with Italy's Jews were not.
Which leaves the patient stitching together of multiple details: for example, how the death of an enemy agent in Lisbon in 1942 indirectly connects to the disappearance of a container-load of illegal immigrants sixty years later. I am reminded of the beginning of the old Robert Redford picture Three Days of the Condor, which asks why a book that hasn't sold in its original market should be translated into half a dozen Middle Eastern languages. After which Redord goes to fetch breakfast and returns to find everyone in the office shot dead.
I also find myself thinking of that game about the film star Kevin Bacon and how many moves it takes to connect him to any other actor or actress in the history of Hollywood. It is frightening how few, (frightening because of the viral shadow that hangs over the game), frightening too when applied to other areas. How many moves from George W. Bush to Osama Bin Laden? One. Bin Laden's brother Salem was a partner in George W's oil firm which went belly-up. A wise American poet whom I met once, Ed Dorn, dead now, always maintained that the Gulf War was a Bush family affair about offshore oil leases; when it comes to politics always look for the vested interest. Also of relevance to the several secret histories which follow is Dorn's remark: 'Listen. Just because the record isn't there doesn't mean it's lost.'
How many moves from face cream to ethnic cleansing? One, as it turns out, thanks to the pharmaceutical industry.
As it is Hoover's story, I will begin with him. Without him I wouldn't be here, so I owe him a formal thanks for that, as well as for permission to use his files, which form the spine of what follows. Further assistance was provided by documents previously belonging to Hoover's former associate -- Obersturmbahnführer Karl-Heinz Strasse of the SS -- and papers generously provided by Beate von Heimendorf. 'Begin' is not a straightforward word in Hoover's book. For him, past and present co-exist: 'They bleed into each other, nephew.' Calling me 'nephew' was his condescending way of being affectionate. Or perhaps he meant something more calculated. I wonder if by giving me his files he intended an act of classic transference. Having wrestled with them for so long -- as I sit here in the high desert, holed up in the Harmony Motel -- I find my own writing starting to impersonate his.
Hoover told me that May 1945 was his obvious starting point, because it was then that he first realised how much was (and remains) invisible. But you can cut the pack anywhere -- 1942, 1945, 1999, this year, next year -- it all links up in the end, not necessarily in the order that it happened. And thanks to the factor known as human error, there may be no closure, ever, maybe no resolution either. Just another cut of the pack, with death the only solution.
Copyright © 2002 by ChrisPetit