Good Peo­ple

  • Review
By – May 3, 2016

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.

Relat­ed Content:

Men­achem Kaiser holds an MFA in cre­ative writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan and was a Ful­bright Fel­low to Lithua­nia. His writ­ing has appeared in The Wall Street Jour­nal, The Atlantic, New York, and else­where. He lives in Brook­lyn, NY.

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