(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky AUG 21, 2007)
“Ignoring the small flash of doubt in yourself—that is what evil is. Nobody thinks of himself as evil, but that deception is part of evil’s nature. And you can’t lie to yourself all the time. Once in a while, there’s that moment when you question if you are doing the right thing. And that’s your only chance to choose what is good….”
Christian Jungersen’s ambitious novel, The Exception, is beautifully translated from the Danish by Anna Paterson; her use of English vernacular is natural and effortless. The story deals with a horrifying subject—genocide—examined through the prism of an ordinary office and its four combative employees. Working at Copenhagen’s Danish Center for Information on Genocide are: Iben Hojgaard, information officer, Malene Jensen, project manager, Camilla Batz, secretary, and Anne-Lise, librarian. The center’s mission is “to collect data about genocide and make it available, both in Denmark and abroad, to researchers, politicians, aid organizations, and other interested parties.” Malene is very close to Iben, whom she met in college; in fact, Malene got Iben her job at the DCIG.
Under the leadership of Paul, their self-serving boss, Malene, Iben, Camilla, and Anne-Lise study acts of past genocide as well as those occurring today. There are innumerable examples of man’s inhumanity to man, such as the ethnic cleansing that took place in the former Yugoslav states, the Armenian genocide, the Rwandan and Darfur massacres, the slaughter of millions of Cambodians by Pol Pot’s regime, and the wholesale slaughter ordered by the Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin. The center’s staff not only compiles and organizes countless documents and books about these subjects, but they also write papers, prepare exhibitions, organize conferences, and assist researchers.
One would think that doing this humanitarian work day after day would sensitize the women to one another’s needs, but the opposite turns out to be true. Little by little, the four turn against one another and engage in a game of psychological warfare that ultimately turns deadly. For some inexplicable reason, Malene, Iben, and Camilla decide to gang up on Anne-Lise and they make her life unbearable. They exclude her from their conversations, talk about her as if she is mentally ill, spread false rumors about her “alcoholism,” and accuse her of committing vile acts, such as sending a series of threatening emails. They even gaslight her (manipulate her into questioning her own sanity). Anne-Lise, who is married with two children, is aghast at the bullying and she frequently cries bitterly to her husband, Henrik. He urges her to fight back, but she finds it difficult to stand up for herself and her misery is beginning to affect her home life. Malene, who is crippled by repeated and painful bouts of arthritis, is pretty and attracts men easily, but she fears that her boyfriend is planning to leave her. Iben is secretly jealous of her friend’s ability to flirt and attract admirers effortlessly, since she has had no romance in her life for quite a while. Also troubling Iben are the horrific memories of her recent captivity in Kenya, where she was held hostage and nearly killed. Iben has a history of depression and panic attacks, and she is obsessed with reading books about abnormal psychology. Camilla, too, harbors a dark secret involving her intimate relationship with a Serbian war criminal.
Interspersed throughout the novel are Iben’s superbly written articles about the psychology of evil. She poses the frequently asked question: How can previously law-abiding citizens take up arms and kill their former neighbors and then manage to live with themselves afterwards? Iben summarizes the classic works of Hannah Arendt, Raul Hilberg, Stanley Milgram, and Daniel Goldhagen, each of whom offers a theory about why ordinary citizens can suddenly turn bestial. These riveting and informative passages are some of the most memorable in the book, and they serve as an ironic counterpoint to the evil deeds that infect an agency dedicated to combating man’s inhumanity to man.
At five hundred pages, The Exception is a bit long and repetitious, and the conclusion is muddied by a few artificial and far-fetched plot developments. However, the internecine warfare between the four women is vividly portrayed and the descriptive passages carefully crafted. Using flashbacks and alternating chapters, Jungersen tells his story from various points of view, which makes learning the truth extremely difficult. At one time or another, each of the protagonists doubts her own senses, and the reader begins to wonder if anyone is telling the truth. Christian Jungersen appears to be saying that each of us is capable of behaving maliciously under certain circumstances and that “victimizing others Is part of human nature.” Our perception of ourselves and others is fluid and can change when doing so contributes to our self-esteem and even our physical and emotional survival. Some readers may understandably protest that comparing office politics to heinous acts of mass murder is at best illogical, and at worst, in poor taste. However, no matter how one reacts to the book’s unique premise, The Exception is a compelling and provocative work that explores a number of significant and thought-provoking issues.
- Amazon readers rating: from 36 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Exception at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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About the Author:
Christian Jungersen was born in 1962 and raised in the northern suburbs of Copenhagen, Denmark. His father was a lawyer and his mother taught Latin and Greek in high school.
After finishing his Masters degree in Communication and Sociology, Jungersen wrote six screenplays, none of which have been produced. He also held a number of part-time jobs including: copywriter for an ad agency, TV script consultant, and film teacher at Copenhagen Community College.
His first novel, Undergrowth, won the Best First Novel award in Denmark and was a Danish bestseller. The Exception has been sold in 14 countries and won the Danish equivalent of the Man Booker prize.