On Sept. 4, 1939, 29 British planes set out to bomb battleships in the German port of Wilhelmshaven. The weather wasn't very good. Some of them bombed Wilhelmshaven, but some of them got lost and unloaded on Esbjerg instead, where there weren't any battleships and which, more to the point, is in Denmark. A woman was killed while making dinner.
This forlorn, tragicomic event appears in an extraordinary new book called Human Smoke (Simon & Schuster; 566 pages), an experiment in retelling the story of World War II using only brief anecdotes and snippets of primary sources--quotations, diaries, speeches, newspaper articles--placed in chronological order with a minimum of historical commentary. Human Smoke begins, for example, with a remark made by Alfred Nobel in August 1892: "On the day when two army corps may mutually annihilate each other in a second, probably all civilized nations will recoil with horror and disband their troops." The dramatic irony is rich.
The roving archival eye that selected and arranged these snippets is attached to the remarkable brain of novelist and critic Nicholson Baker. Baker occupies a curious position in American letters: part genius, part crank. His best works--his novels The Mezzanine and A Box of Matches, and U and I, his book-length study of John Updike--contain passages so beautifully observed and perfectly formed that they stick in the mind for years. His lesser works--the sweaty, oversharing sexcursions Vox and The Fermata and his tetchy political rant Checkpoint--contain passages you could spend years trying to forget.
We get a bit of both Bakers in Human Smoke. Consider the loupe-eyed precision with which he recounts this atrocity:
A German police battalion arrived at the shtetl of Sudilkov, in the Ukraine. The policemen led several hundred people to a bomb crater outside the town and shot them. The victims fell into the crater. A woman, unharmed, climbed out and sat on the edge, crying. A soldier shot her, and she fell back in. It was August 21, 1941.
It's like a Goya etching in prose.
But Baker isn't interested in just changing the way we write history; he wants to change our minds about what happened and what should have happened. He shows us a vain, bloodthirsty Winston Churchill overeager to wage war and not overly particular about bombing civilians. He shows us Franklin D. Roosevelt turning away European refugees and baiting the Japanese before Pearl Harbor. As a counterweight, Baker spotlights international pacifist movements, with Mohandas Gandhi as their principal spokesperson. Ultimately Baker appears to be making the argument that no violence is ever justifiable, even in self-defense, and that, in Gandhi's words, "Hitlerism and Churchillism are in fact the same thing. The difference is only one of degree."
I say appears because as vivid and visceral as Human Smoke is, it has a maddeningly slippery quality. In presenting bare facts unadorned by any commentary, Human Smoke cloaks itself in an aura of limpid, virtuous purity. But beneath that cloak, things get a little murky because in presenting the facts as he does, Baker is making an argument that he doesn't explicitly state. Does he really believe--as he seems to--that aerial bombing is on a moral continuum with Nazi genocide? And that Adolf Hitler's hatred of Jews is comparable to Churchill's hatred of the Germans and Japanese? (We get Mrs. Churchill calling them "Nazi hogs" and "yellow Japanese lice" in a letter?) Or that the world would be a better place if--delirious fantasy--Europe had met German aggression with nonviolent resistance? I mean, if you're going to strongly imply that England should have made peace with Hitler, you might as well just come out and say it.
It's hard to argue with somebody who won't argue. It's almost like there's an unspoken analogy at work between Gandhi's nonviolence and Baker's noncommentary: Baker declines to take up arms in support of his thesis, as if to do so would be to commit rhetorical violence against the facts. But facts, even tragic ones, require context and interpretation. They don't speak for themselves. That's why we need historians.