Romain Gary with his wife, actress Jean Seberg.

Romain Gary's The Dance of Genghis Cohn

commentary by rbadac


Culture in America, including, sadly, the written word, has been dumbed-down to the point of pointlessness for a majority which no longer wants to be challenged, but rather desires only to be vaguely represented, perhaps only merely entertained. There are exceptions of course, but enjoy them while you can, they disappear quickly. There's no money in them. It didn't used to be that way, & I'm not even talking about the classics of past centuries -- there are books written 20, 30, & 50 years ago that are smarter than you'll ever be. Some of their authors committed suicide, & where does that leave you? Too stupid to know how really unhappy you ought to be, that's where. Have a nice day. While you're at it, read a good book that's only dated in that it mentions Vietnam in an ongoing context, one which hasn't changed in form or implication from those days to these, only been forgotten & re-hashed in different settings for a world determined to repeat its past ad infinitum because it lacks both the ability to "get it" & the memory to care.

Romain Gary (1914-1980) was a Russian-born French novelist with an impressive literary career; some of you older readers may be familiar with The Roots of Heaven (1958), The Ski Bum (1965), The Gasp (1973), or his collection Hissing Tales (1964). But he was also a human being, & his success was not sufficient for his happiness; a year after his former wife, the actress Jean Seberg, committed suicide, he shot himself. But who knows what the real reason may have been? Depression, incipient disease, a weariness of life -- it doesn't take much, really. Asking too many questions & not getting the right answers could do it. One gets the impression though that this was not the case here, for Gary made it his business to face painful truths about a lot of things. Yet he managed to maintain his sense of humor to an admirable degree for longer than most, nowhere more trenchantly than in The Dance of Genghis Cohn (New American Library; NY, 1968).

It's only a taking-off point really, a novel's plot; but to impress its concerns upon the reader it must start somewhere, usually in the province of the real world, because that is usually where the reader is waiting to be picked up...

Police Chief Schatz, of the city of Licht, is haunted by the spirit of a Jewish comedian named Genghis Cohn, only one of the many who met their deaths 24 years previous, when Schatz, then a storm trooper, shouted the order Feuer! at the edge of a trench. Cohn made a gesture of defiance which intrigued Schatz enough to find out who he was, a dreadful mistake for a mass murderer -- now Cohn is bound to Schatz as his own personal dybbuk. Schatz sees him wherever he goes, hears him speak; sometimes, in ventriloquial fashion, is made to speak by him. Cohn in his turn resides with Schatz with all the good-nature & pointed solicitude expected of the master comedian he is, one who is determined that Schatz be made to see with both sets of eyes for as long as he lives.
"...He's beginning to understand that nothing can ever separate us. He hardly sleeps at all & I have to spend my nights sitting on his bed, with my yellow star, looking soulfully into his eyes. He particularly hates it when I suggest we hold hands. The other night he began to mutter something about "Jewish atrocities." The more exhausted he is, the more obsessive my presence becomes. I don't particularly enjoy keeping him company. But I can't help it. It's all his own doing. It has been my fate to add a new dimension to the legend of the Wandering Jew: that of the immanent Jew, omnipresent, entirely assimilated, forever part of each atom of the German earth, air, & conscience. All I need is a pair of wings & a little pink ass to become a beautiful Jewish angel. You are probably familiar with the new twist given to our old saying in all the bierstuben around Buchenwald, when a sudden silence falls in the conversation: A Jew is passing by..."

But as police chief, Schatz has his own problems. There is a serial killer at large near Licht in the forest of Geist (a German word which, like the novel itself, stretches the meanings of ghost, spirit, & soul out into infinity) who has left over 40 dead bodies in his wake so far, all with their pants down & with indecently happy expressions upon their faces. This killer, a gardener named Florian, is accompanied by Lily, the runaway wife of a local Baron, & the pressure is on for Schatz to solve the murders & return the wayward wife to her husband.

This is, however, only the prosaic view of the situation for, as it turns out, there's a lot more going on here than appearances would admit. This is no ordinary gardener, & Lily is no ordinary woman. In fact, the endeavors of the spectral Cohn take a back seat to the metaphysical drama of these two, though Cohn's commentary is crucial to the full understanding of their importance:

"...I don't know whether you are aware of it, but Nature lives on hope. She hides very great expectations in her breast. Yes indeed, she too is rather a dreamer, she never loses courage. She means to make it one day. Or rather, to return to it. The return to Paradise, the Eden of her beginnings. She counts a great deal on man for that. On his disappearance, I mean..."

This is a ghost story of a different variety than the traditional; it not only features the funniest, yet most tragic ghost ever delineated, it also binds him up with his victim in a remarkable manner -- for the story is as much about the haunted as the haunter, & ultimately pursues a much larger humanity, to yoke it to the largest haunting of all.

Back in 1993 A&E presented their film Genghis Cohn (available on video), based on the novel & starring Diana Rigg. While it is well-acted & entertaining, it is a very freely adapted & extremely simplified version of the original, with none of the novel's real stretch. The Dance of Genghis Cohn, a gritty fantasy in which Love & Death collude to the enrichment & destruction of their captive audience, is patently unfilmable, completely beyond the range of visual presentation. Its canvas is the whole of History, not just Jewish or German history either, its indictment that of the Culture of humankind itself, in which, incredibly, the Holocaust is only a symptom.

Bei mir bist du schoen.
copyright 2000 by rbadac, all rights reserved


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