Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke is an interesting take on the beginnings of World War II. The nonfiction book is written in short paragraphs, each detailing a minor event that led up to January 1, 1942 (right after the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war). Because the book was written in such a fragmentary way, it was easy to read and absorb. The little pieces stood alone, but they eventually coalesced and formed a whole that explained the author/compiler’s* thesis: Pacifism is the way to go. World War II could easily have been prevented. World leaders like Churchill and Roosevelt were just as corrupt and prejudiced as Stalin and Hitler.
I didn’t agree with that viewpoint, and I didn’t like the portrayal of Roosevelt as a racist who loved funding the creation of weapons as he sat around playing with his stamp collection and Churchill as a fat lazy wordsmith who did nothing more than plot innocent people’s demise and smoke cigars. The book had several perspectives from pacifists such as Mahatma Gandhi, but the pacifists seemed as though they were clearly in the minority. I don’t think passive, nonviolent resistance would have a stopped a demon like Hitler, who was so fixated on his ill-conceived ideology that outside perspectives would never have deterred him.
As much as the content of the book bothered me, the style in which it was written was well done and dramatic. Most of the little sections had an exact date in them, like, “It was June 15, 1941,” and the small details added a lot to the overall story and brought humanity to the characters. For instance:
A couple, Hans Hirschfeld and Inge Korach, were to be married in Berlin. It was fall 1941. They picked up their mothers early in order to get to the marriage office on time. The small room reserved for Jewish weddings was open only from eight to nine o’clock in the morning. The civil servant moved some flowers from the Aryan room to the Jewish room to make things look more festive.
I was a little disappointed that the book didn’t go all the way through the end of the war. I thought that there might be a sequel, but based on the author’s premise of pacifism, a sequel wouldn’t be needed. Once America entered the war, there was no turning back.
I would recommend this book if you’re tired of the “traditional” history books and want a different perspective on World War II, but if you admire Roosevelt and Churchill and don’t want to read anything about them that might piss you off, I wouldn’t read this book.
*Most of the small paragraphs and snippets came from the New York Times, so some might consider the book more a compilation than true “writing.” Some other readers said that they felt that the quotes might have been taken out of context as well.