Hitler's Niece, by Ron Hansen
HarperCollins, 310 pages, $25.
"[A]ll I ever seem to do is have dinner with older men," whines Geli, the
title figure in Ron Hansen's clumsy Hitler's Niece. That complaint is
the key to the failure of this novel. The "older men" in question are all the
heavyweight baddies of the Holocaust, and Geli is nothing but an excuse to tell
us interesting things Hansen has learned about them in his research (as
detailed in his author's note).
Geli, 19 years Hitler's junior, really existed and was murdered or committed
suicide, depending on which historical report you accept. This makes for a
fascinating point of departure. No doubt her rumored affair with her uncle
would have made for an excellent novel in the right hands, but here her
character is woefully underwritten; she is a protagonist without an inner life
for the entire first half of the novel, and when she does begin to think about
her situation, she doesn't get far.
Hansen is doomed by the old problem of writing across gender, perhaps a skill
that separates minor-league writers from the sluggers. Women in this novel are
apt to say aloud things like "I have a tiny brain." Geli, a would-be Lolita who
lets her uncle spank her erotically at age 19, keeps silent but notes to
herself that now "the shift of power was complete."
If Geli is not much of a character, a girl whose actions are entirely
reactions, it is because Hansen is so preoccupied with pouring evidence of
research into the text. In addition to providing us with colorful stories about
Hitler's early years (his troubles stem from two sources: his mother died after
a Jewish doctor gave poor advice, and he never got accepted to art school),
Hansen introduces us to Goering, Goebbels, Hess, Himmler, and Rohm. This is
handled through clunky fact-dumping: whenever she encounters someone new, Geli
remembers that she had once been "told" their complete history -- that Ernst
Rohm, for instance, was into the occult and young boys, hated Jews and women,
was financed by rich industrialists, had a defense force of 100,000 men, and
fled to Bolivia. The apex of this expository awkwardness comes when Goebbels
reads excerpts from his own diary aloud.
Amid all this, the hook is supposed to be the incestuous relationship between
Hitler and Geli. From the first spank (100 pages in), it is a tortured mess; if
titillation is what you want, you'll be pleased with their ultimate creepy sex
scene. But for the sake of tension or forward motion, Hansen should have kept
exploring the potentially potent triangle between the uncle, the niece, and the
chauffeur who loves her.
At one point, Hansen's Hitler says, "I have trouble with proportions." In the
end, offering too little story and too much exposition, Hansen has the same
-- David Valdes Greenwood