Nir Baram’s Good People is without question a World War II book, just not the usual kind. There are no battlefields, no concentration camps, no weapons or heroes or grand dramatics. The novel’s pages do not contain much death — the horrors and tragedies generally associated with the war are way off in the periphery.
Good People is a novel about bureaucracy — specifically, the perversely surreal and malevolent German and Soviets bureaucracies. Opening in 1938 and closing in 1941, the book is comprised of two seemingly disparate stories: the rise and fall of a calculating, ambitious German diplomat and the rise and fall of a sensitive, talented NKVD officer. Both protagonists are canny, suave, and talented, but they each struggle to navigate their vast, labyrinthine political institutions, ultimately devoured by the beasts they have tried so hard to appease. The rules are opaque and constantly shifting; everyone is conspiring against everyone; everyone has their own set of truths.
Baram’s Russian protagonist is Sasha Weissberg, a young woman with literary aspirations who chooses the less noble but safer lifepath: she becomes the confessions editor for the NKVD. Weissberg’s actions can be easily condemned — she turned on her family, on her friends, on writers she loved and writers she was envious of; she extracts “confessions” that get the confessor exiled or killed — but only from a distance. As with Heiselberg, Baram is less interested in how his readers see Weissberg than in how Weissberg sees herself. She has no difficulty morally justifying her heinous work: “[She would] meet with the accused to produce the most precise confession… [b]ecause imprecise details are liable to do an injustice to the accused who wants to confess with sincerity and submit to rehabilitation.” The totalitarian state requires the full submission of body, soul, and reason.
Weissberg’s counterpart is Thomas Heiselberg, a young hotshot German analyst and inveterate opportunist who, before the war, was a promising executive for a large American corporation. Squeezing himself in with the Foreign Service, he develops a brilliant model of Poland, of its people and cultures, so that the Germans might understand whom they’re invading, governing and — though Heiselberg never had this in mind — murdering. Heiselberg is calculating and unsentimental. He is constantly assessing, conniving, outwitting; he is never not playing the game.
One of the quieter marvels of Good People is how deep it burrows into Heiselberg’s psyche: the ultimate goals of his employers (of whom Baram’s readers know more than Heiselberg does) are much less pressing than his getting ahead. It is a superlative act of empathy towards a character rarely seen in World War II literature: Heiselberg is neither a coldblooded Nazi nor a kind and brave resister; he’s a slimy civil servant. On the few occasions he sticks up for a persecuted Jew or Pole it’s not because he’s a hero but because he knows that wanton violence is inefficient. In a scene late in the book, Heiselberg watches through the window as Jews are rounded up. He shuts the blinds. This has nothing to do with him.
Towards the end of the book, Heiselberg and Weissberg are sent by their respective countries to Brest, in modern-day Belarus, to plan a joint German-Soviet parade. It is a fool’s errand: the relationship between Germany and Soviet, once enthusiastic co-carvers of Europe, is fraying; war is in the air. Heiselberg and Weissberg have been brought low, and know it. They have failed to play the game properly.
Good People is a subtle, original, and fascinating take on the wartime story. We forget that the brutality was as much a bureaucratic effort as a military one. We forget that even the most massive, most evil forces are comprised of moving human parts. If Good People has a moral, it is this: the totalitarian state will attempt to possess the individual by co-opting his (relatively innocent) instincts — ambition, greed, security, and love. The question at heart is if it is possible within an evil system to be good.