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The Auschwitz of Oz
243mm x 158mm
ISBN 0 86130 098 X
|The Citizen Kane of Bad Taste. There's so much evil energy in this book, if it moved next door
to you you'd probably get cancer within a week! In the long-awaited
sequel to David Britton's first novel, Lord Horror (and Savoy's contender for the 1996 Booker Prize for Fiction) the great horror of modern history is absorbed into the framework
of Surrealism, literary fantasy and the darkest children's fiction.
By viewing the Holocaust as a tragicomic carnival of the grotesque, the author offers
the reader a vivid, dream-level identification with the era of
efficient barbarism. A terrain of unfettered imagination, written
to the glorious edgy, spooky, intense, mad, weird Rock'n'Roll
and Rhythm'n'Blues music of the 1950s, from a series of tapes
compiled for David Britton by the legendary Roger Eagle. Roger provided us with the best and most obscure down home Blues,
Rockabilly, Hilly-Country and Rockin' instrumentals from that
seething decade. His experience and unrivalled musical library
helped reinforce the musical motifs that run through Motherfuckers. Clubman and DJ extraordinaire, Roger was a friend of ours for
thirty years. A word to the wise: Roger was owner The Magic Village Club in Manchester and helped form the Punk movement of the '70s with
his seminal Liverpool club, Eric's. As a promoter he brought to Britain many Blues performers (Bo Diddley, LaVern Baker, Screamin' Jay Hawkins) and a number of Jamaican artists, particularly Lee 'Scratch' Perry.
Jacket art: Detail from Ghost Of A Flea by William Blake.
||"You can't get much more crazed, obscene or furious than David Britton whose take on the Holocaust, while in no way disrespectful, matches the event itself for a sense of horror. I know of no writer confronting the greatest crime of the 20th Century in the same effective way. Motherfuckers: The Auschwitz of Oz is one of his three Lord Horror novels. You need a strong stomach.”
MICHAEL MOORCOCK, Ten Overlooked Odd Speculative Fiction Classics, The SF Site
"Another publishing milestone for Savoy... (the chapter Oi Swiney!) must be seen as David Britton's personal vision of Helllike a Bosch painting animated by Merry Melodies."
DAVID M MITCHELL, Rapid Eye
"A bizarre and outrageous confection of riotous, Rabelaisian imagery."
"Some writers would argue that to tackle a subject as emotionally vast and prickly as the Holocaust takes enormous sensitivity and guile. I repeat: not David Britton. In Motherfuckers murder is played for laughs. Against a background of Nazism, anti-Semitism, and the presence of (mainly American) rock'n'roll (on the very first page, Lord Horror is described both as a "sidewinding rattler" and as the "Be-Bop-A-Lula of Auschwitz") this phantasmagorical horror novel ranges between concentration camps and tea rooms. It is one of the darkest things I have ever read.
Meng and Ecker are bizarre creations. Creations in the sense of being characters invented by David Britton; but also that they are the products of both cosmetic and scientific experimentation. Meng, for example, has silicone implants in his breasts. (On being told that he will be "the sexiest man on earth" Meng asks, "Any chance of giving me a two-foot dick..." His nipples, we are told, "stood out as firm as corn cobs.") Although they have a tea-room business, Meng is also something of a stand-up comicat least in his own mindand he spends an entire chapter telling highly racist jokes ("Napalm Africa, that was his dream"). In the absence of Lord Horror, he is fulfilling an ambition: using the experience of stand-up to recite some childishly rude doggerel; to obtain some sexual gratification; oh, and he also murders some people while he's there.
Ecker is the more sedate of the two, not surprisingly. It would be difficult to make a character more extreme than Meng, but I wouldn't be amazed to learn that Britton is working on the challenge. Ecker is given to the more profound thoughts (out of the two characters at least): "Auschwitz, thought Ecker, is a semaphore from the past that spelled future." And he also is fluent on subjects that might never have crossed a more genteel mind: "Stoats don't die of syphilis anymore." Thanks for passing that on.
This novel contains some beautiful writing and some excellent descriptive passages that work by the sheer unusualness of a word or two. For example, "An old-aged pensioner, stripped to the waist, his skinny chest flecked with sepia, managed to stagger towards Meng." That word sepia is so unexpected that the sentence is lifted. When I interviewed the editor of this book, Michael Butterworth, he informed me that the publisher's original aim, some quarter of a century ago, had been to marry together high and low art. Motherfuckers, in a sense, is just such a consummation. More than any other writer, this book reminded me of William S. Burroughsmore because of the attitude than the style of writing.
So what's it all "about"? What were The Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine "about"? Far be it for me to assume to know David Britton's aims and objectives (and my request for an interview with him was politely declined), but if I was to hazard a guess I'd say he was trying to extrapolate current trends to their logically illogical conclusions. It might be argued that if every age gets the art it deserves, then what the hell did we do to deserve this? It is powerful, frightening and goading. I was even quite nervous about reading it in public, because of the swastika on the dustcover; I'm frightened of being beaten up."
MOTHERFUCKERS: THE AUSCHWITZ OF OZ
JULIAN PETLEY, Foundation No. 69
Motherfuckers is the latest addition to a vast Cthulhu-like saga that spans the novel Lord Horror, the graphic series Lord Horror, Meng & Ecker and Reverbstorm, and even musical ventures such as the Savoy Wars CD. If you haven't come across any of these it is, however, hardly surprising. Ever since 1980 their publisher, the Manchester-based Savoy, has been subjected to what can only be described as a concerted campaign by Manchester police and magistrates to keep their publications out of distribution and thus close them down entirely.
After a decade of raids and harassment the novel Lord Horror was declared obscene in 1991 but, although it was reprieved on appeal in 1992, the police refused point blank to return all but a handful of the copies they'd originally seized. And, in 1996, after a long legal battle, obscenity charges were upheld on a number of the graphic titles, which were subsequently destroyed. In France or Italy their illustrator, John Coulthart, would be spoken of in the same breath as Guido Crepax, and his work would be freely available in those sections of bookshops routinely devoted to graphic art. Here Crepax is barely known, most bookshops wouldn't dream of stocking what they'd regard as "comics", Coulthart and co. are arraigned in court as pornographers and even fascists, and their work is ignominiously consigned to the flames. But there again, this is England.
It's always hard to discuss anything emanating from Savoy without digressing at some length into the history of the campaign against them. However, this is simply one of the more insidious ways in which censorship works to suppress discussion of censored texts themselves. Those interested in this particular story might like to refer to my "Savoy Scrapbook" in Index on Censorship, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1996.
Although Motherfuckers is part of a vast and increasingly sprawling mythos it can, however, be read perfectly easily without any knowledge of its forbears and near-relations. Its cast of characters and frames of reference are truly gargantuan, and no respecters of conventional distinctions between "fact" and "fiction" or between "high" and "popular" culture. Thus figures such as Tank Girl, Lohengrin, Judge Dredd and Parsifal intermingle deliriously with Eliot, Auden, New Order and Madonna. The main figures around whom the extremely loose narrative revolves are themselves purely fictional, although their names make playful reference to notorious real characters from recent history. These are: Lord Horror (after "Lord Haw-Haw", aka William Joyce, the traitorous World War II broadcaster), Meng (after Joseph Mengele, the notorious doctor known as the "exterminating angel" of Auschwitz) and Ecker (after Dietrich Eckhart, editor of the Nazi newspaper the Völkischer Beobachter). Meng and Ecker themselves are mutant twins "rescued" and operated on by Mengele for research purposes, and the story concerns their search for their "creator" through shattered, dislocated space and time.
Motherfuckers, then, deals with two of the most difficult subjects of our timefascism and the Holocaust. Given the huge number of books devoted to these themes this is hardly very daring or exceptionable. What does mark out the book as differentand, for some, distinctly problematicis that it chooses to explore these themes within the framework of grotesque, Rabelaisian fantasy. In this respect the book's subtitle, "The Auschwitz of Oz", says it all, as does, in a different way, its prefatory quotation from Wordsworth's The Prelude -
The conjunction of this deliberately shocking, tasteless pun with the evocation of one of the "greats" of Eng Lit perfectly sums up Motherfuckers' extraordinary cultural and tonal heterogeneity. For what distinguishes it in literary terms is its vertiginous fusion of elements which, even in these allegedly "post-modern" times, seem almost outrageously diverse and jarring. On the one hand the book clearly draws on the fantastic current in English writing (the gothic, Swift, Carroll, Hodgson, Grahame), but there's also an input from more specifically continental transgressors of conventions, both social and textual, such as de Sade, Lautréamont, Huysmans, Bataille and Céline. But this already heady brew is made more potent still by a huge repertoire of references to the endless minutiae of popular culture both past and present, as well as by the productive influence of science fiction of the Dick, Lem, Adams and Ballard varieties. All of this would make for a pretty intoxicating mix in any circumstances; as a framework for investigating fascism and, more particularly, its continuing popular appeal, it's potentially explosive.
Works which deal with fascism's appeal always run the risk of themselves being labelled "fascist", as indeed happened to Lord Horror. In this respect it's perhaps worth quoting from the introduction to the Czech edition of that book. This was written by Brian Stableford (who defended Lord Horror in court) and his remarks apply equally to Motherfuckers. (It is, of course, a sobering thought that you can buy Lord Horror in the Czech Republic but not in the UK):
Motherfuckers, like Lord Horror, is a remarkable contribution to the study of what Susan Sontag has called "fascinating fascism". One of its most interesting aspects is the way in which it suggests that the legacy of the camps has now become immanent and all-embracing. Again, there's nothing particularly new in thisthe French were talking about "l'univers concentrationnaire" years agobut the way in which Britton tackles the theme is characteristically multi-faceted. On the one hand, there's the idea that the Holocaust was so appalling that its memory is indelibly branded on our present and future, so that nothing can ever be the same again (thus Adorno's dictum that "after Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric"):
There then follows a quote from what purports to be Lord Horror's brother, James (i.e. James Joyce, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) to the effect that:
And that is why, according to Britton, "a work of fiction that would do justice to the Holocaust must take as its first principle the shattering of chronology."
On the other hand, however, and rather more controversially, there's also the idea that the camps represent an image of the globalised commercial future. And here Britton's ambivalent fascination with popular culture comes into play:
And indeed, much later in the novel we discover that "the future craze for virtual reality games was already intruding thousands of phantom 'tourists' into Auschwitz."
At one point Britton quotes what purports to be a Japanese postcard from T S Eliot to Lord Horror. (In fact it's an amalgam of Eliot with Michael Mann on his extraordinary Nazi horror movie The Keep). This is in one of the book's most Borgesian sections in which Horror flits through the lives and works of all sorts of 1930s notables such as the Mitford sisters, Lawrence, Cyril Connolly and Constant Lambert, although Britton characteristically complicates the mix by having Horror also corresponding with pulp science fiction figures such as Otis Adelbert Kline, Ray Cummings and Nictzin Dyalhis. In the card Eliot writes that:
This Motherfuckers most undoubtedly is, and it is at its most hallucinatory and demented in the chapter entitled "Oi Swiney!" (a clear echo of one of the most terrifying fantasy novels in the English language, William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland). Here Meng and Ecker (in the company of the little red talking VW Beetle Herbie Schopenhauer) are treated, like Hodgson's central character, to a sustained vision of Armageddon. In this case it's the "harbour of Belsen-Bergen", in which the landscape of the concentration camps collides deliriously. insanely, with Blackpool's Golden Mile. Quotation simply cannot do justice to these brain-searing twenty-four pages, although trying to imagine the worst horrors of Bosch, Goya and Dix animated by Tex Avery and Jan Svankmajer might give you some idea of what they're like. It's at this point, in particular, that one remembers George Steiner's remark about the "subtle and corrupting fascination" of the Holocaust and his warning that no one "however scrupulous, who spends time and imaginative resources on those dark places, can, or indeed, ought to leave them personally intact."
But if Motherfuckers can be read as a "horrific, dark fairy tale" it can also be seen as a philosophical fable in the mould of Candide or Justine, with Herbie Schopenhauer in the title role. For example, when we first meet Herbie he has just driven off the production line and resolved that:
By the time he has experienced the horrors of the harbour of Belsen-Bergen, however, he has decided that:
In this respect, the finally "enlightened" Herbie seems close to the animating spirit of Motherfuckers itself, a book which refuses to deal with fascism and the Holocaust with the gravitas normally accorded to them. It's not that it doesn't take them deadly seriously but, rather, like To Be Or Not To Be, The Great Dictator or The Producers, it uses humour as a powerful weapon against "fascinating fascism" and realises that mere moralising probably does more harm than good:
This is obviously not a book which will be to everyone's taste. It is, however, a book about which readers should be able to make up their own minds. On the basis of Savoy's past experience this doesn't seem very likely. With publications relating to all aspects of the Third Reich now a minor industry, and shops stocking books with "fuck" and its derivatives in their titles, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Savoy are paying the price for breaking one of the last taboosdealing with fascism and the Holocaust in ways deemed "inappropriate" by our moral, cultural and ideological guardians.
Kafka once said that:
Motherfuckers does all of these things and, in my opinion, should be commended for it. But even if one finds Kafka's view of the purposes of literature a trifle masochistic one should surely have the right, in a supposedly democratic country at the end of the twentieth century, to decide for oneself not only about Motherfuckers but about all Savoy's other publications too.
Julian Petley teaches at Brunel University. The Adventures of Meng and Ecker by David Britton and Kris Guidio collects several of the graphic series mentioned in his review, and includes new work. Brian Stableford's introduction to the Czech edition of Lord Horror, mentioned above, is available to read on this site.
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