- For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
- For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
- For want of a horse the rider was lost.
- For want of a rider the battle was lost.
- For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
- And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Our Girl in Chicago (I like spelling out OGIC on occasion) has really eloquently laid out the complexities of this ambitious novel. Asking readers to identify with a “bad” person is not a new tactic. We willingly do it in Lolita, as OGIC notes. Still, it tests our ethics.
In one of several subplots, the narrator and war criminal meditates on the apparent madness of a local resistance hero. Did he really turn bad? Was his turn connected to ergotism (a madness caused by eating grain infected by the fungus ergot, I learned)? Was that ergotism linked to Emile’s own actions as a local official?
Of all the things that he is responsible for, this one is more of a stretch than many others. After all, he enthusiastically orders the deportment of dozens, hundreds, of Jews. Still, he meditates on his own complicity (and guilt) here. As in the old nursery rhyme “For want of a nail,” perhaps for want of good flour, the resistance leader was lost. While Emile doesn’t mourn this, we are meant to see the link and to think about the reach of Emile's guild.
Part of the diabolical nature of this meditation on complicity, however, is that it works the other way, too. Emile’s skill in wondering if he’s responsible for Paul’s madness is partly egotism. And his self-justification works in the same way. Over and over again, he wonders how things might have changed if he had not been teased by Paul’s wife, Arianne, in the schoolyard. The cruelty he suffers in boyhood is another kind of nail, digging at him, spurring him on, offering him an excuse.
All of this has got me thinking about the ethics of fiction. How far are you willing to follow a narrator? What makes an exercise in sympathy for the devil into art? What keeps it a mere exercise? Do you have a favorite anti-hero or one so evil he (or she) made you turn away?