Boys from Brazil, The by Levin, Ira, 1976

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Ira Levin's 1974 novel The Boys from Brazil was a crossover mass-market/SF novel that did a decent job with its SF themes. It's a book about cloning, and is in fact the seminal book about cloning Adolf Hitler. Fortunately the mass market parts sit more in the background and overall it is a fine novel with an interesting plot. Ira Levin is one of those "mainstream" authors like Cormac McCarthy and Michael Chabon who uses SF themes seriously and thoughtfully, and generally produces great results. Overall it is a bit slow moving, but there was no filler. Actually, it was a bit like an Asimov story. Asimov tends to ramble, but makes some pretty interesting and sometimes brilliant points. Levin seems to have that quality in his writing too.

The Boys from Brazil reads like a chess game. In this story the characters are Yakov Liebermann, a Jewish Nazi hunter from Austria whose character was inspired mostly by Simon Wiesenthal, and Josef Mengele, the Butcher of Auschwitz who escaped to South America after Germany lost the war. The plot is convoluted and serpentine, and very satisfying throughout. Much of the plot hinges on fortuitous occurrences, but it never gets to be too unbelievable. The plot essentially is this: Mengele perfected single-cell cloning before the end of the war, and took some tissue samples from Adolf Hitler before his death in Berlin. After the war Mengele escaped capture in Germany for several years, and then fled to South America. Once there he set up a laboratory in the jungle and created 94 viable embryos that were all exact copies of Hitler. Mengele then inserted agents into several popular adoption agencies in major cities in Europe and the United States, and ordered those agents to clandestinely contact certain couples who fit the proper demographic; couples who had been denied a child by the agencies that they worked for because the father was too old. Through those agents Mengele placed those 94 clones after they had been born. The agents found 94 couples where the man would be 65 on the child's 13th birthday, the wife was significantly younger than the husband, and the husband was a mid level civil servant. Those basic family demographics were of vital importance to the plan because he wanted to give these children lives that were more likely than not to replicate Adolf Hitler's own upbringing in Austria. Since the real Adolf Hitler's father died in a traumatic accident when he was 13 years old, Mengele believed that repeating that trauma to one or more of these "little Hitlers" could possibly create a new Fuhrer. At the beginning of the story a young man who was trying to impress Liebermann and land a job at Liebermann's nazi-hunting center, had a waitress secret a recording device into a Nazi dinner party. At that party Mengele was recorded dispatching several assassins to go out and kill all of the fathers. Mengele figured out that he had been recorded, and caught and killed the boy but not before the boy alerted Liebermann that something was going on.

The bulk of the story is about Liebermann's investigation of the plot, because at first he knows only that the Nazis want to kill almost 100 men, but he does not know why. The young man who taped the meeting died supplying Liebermann with the names of the marked men, so Liebermann and a few volunteers from his Jewish Center in Europe fanned out to interview the wives of the survivors. After several weeks of work and after nine of the men had been killed, Liebermann was ready to give up. In fact he did give up because he could find no connection between the murdered men and the Nazis, but while he was in New Jersey on a speaking engagement he decided to stop by to visit the wife of one of the murdered men in Connecticut. While he was there he spotted the woman's son and was flabbergasted, as he looked exactly like the son of another of the widows whom he had met with in Austria. With renewed determination Liebermann and his team of friends and volunteers figured out that Mengele had learned the secrets of cloning from his "studies" of twins at Auschwitz. At first they suspected that Mengele was cloning himself, but based on the common facts of the men, Liebermann figured out that it was Hitler they had cloned, and that they were trying to approximate Hitler's own upbringing by killing the boy's fathers at the age of 13.

The child conceived by mononuclear reproduction will grow up looking like his donor and sharing certain characteristics and propensities with him, but if he's raised in a different environment, subjected to different domestic and cultural influences - as he's bound to be, if only by being born years later - well, he can turn out to be quite different psychologically from his donor, despite their genetic sameness. Mengele was obviously interested not in breeding a particular biological strain...but in reproducing himself, a particular individual. The similar families are an attempt to maximize the chances of the boy's growing up in the right environment.

There actually is not too much more to say about this book. Levin's product is highly, brightly polished; there are few if any flaws in it. Back when this book was originally published it was very popular, and in fact was also made into a successful film. I have a feeling that the people who adapted it to the screen did little to change the story. The sad fact is that even though there is some depth here, it really does read like some of the more brainless, action-oriented SF books out there; The kind of books that I like to call "airplane time-wasters." Levin moves the plot along well at every turn, and while he never resolved any issues with deus-ex-machina phenomena, he really never had any of his characters screw up either. He went through pains to present them as flawed persons, even though they never made any mistakes. More, all of them were pretty much what you would expect. Liebermann was the wise old world-weary Jew. Mengele was the twisted, evil psychopath. Most of the support characters were young and impetuous, so eager to help that they sometimes got themselves killed. I honestly don't think that I was surpirsed once. Not once. Although, I did appreciate the time and thought that Levin put into the cloning issues. He was smart enough to realize that even Hitler was a creation of his environment, and was not born to be a butcher. Levin put the clone babies through the gauntlet, saying something interesting about nature versus nurture at the same time.

Copyright 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)


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