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Europe. Waves of immigrants and refugees are being forced to move against their will. Many end up without documentation. Consequently, they cannot work legally and are subject to arrest for not having any documentation. Politicians in numerous countries pass legislation making it impossible for most refugees to obtain legal documents and authorizing their police forces to arrest undocumented residents. Many of those arrested end up in prison or in detention camps especially set up for these refugees. Vigilante gangs stirred up by nativist and fascist organizations attack and beat those they consider the Other. Hardly anybody defends or protects those who are attacked, fearing their own status and the police. Meanwhile, regional wars slowly turn into proxy wars for different imperial alliances, creating even more refugees. In addition, laws based against the free movement of people from certain ethnicities and religions become more pointed and harsh. The fear of a world war increases with each day.
Now, imagine you are an adolescent boy whose parents sent you out of the country because they feared for your freedom and safety. You end up staying with relatives in Paris for a while, constantly hoping for a permanent refugee visa while doing odd jobs and occasional longer term work. Your life is uncertain, but adventurous as you meet street characters, left wing organizers, girls, and others. You stay in touch with news about your parents and sister back in the country you left—a Germany becoming more and more unfriendly to everyone but those they consider pure German. After a run of bad luck, you hear your family has been removed from their home and sent off. This puts you over the edge, so you go to the German consulate in Paris and kill a German official. You sit quietly until the police come.
This is the premise of author Joseph Matthews’ latest novel, Everyone Has Their Reasons. Utilizing the Paris assassination of a German embassy official named vom Rath on November 7, 1938 by a 17-year old displaced Polish-German Jew that was manipulated by the Nazis into the German Kristallnacht, Matthews addresses issues of identity, immigration, anti-Semitism, nationalism, and collective punishment. The young assassin, named Herschel Gryntzmyn, is the narrator and protagonist. He tells his story of a life in the Paris underworld in the 1930s via a series of letters to an attorney appointed to him by the German government. The letters are written while he sits in prison awaiting his trial. They discuss his friendships, his exile, his means of survival and his discoveries.
There is a section of Thomas Pynchon’s masterwork Gravity’s Rainbow titled “In the Zone.” This section is a catalogue of perversion and deviance involving military men from all nations, black marketeers in everything from cocaine to flesh, arms dealers and child prostitutes of every gender; the transactions and experiences are undertaken in an atmosphere defined by the despair, desperation and just plain evil of total war. The underlying truth of this section is that war unleashes the worst attributes of humanity, making what was once forbidden common. Evil wins the moment. Everything is for sale. In a more light-hearted manner, Joseph Heller provides the reader with his character Milo Minderbinder, who makes money off of everything in the war and sells to all sides in the conflict.
Although Pynchon’s Zone seems to intentionally exaggerate the perversions of humanity, the world described in Herschel’s letters to his attorney is of a similar nature. He describes his experiences with pimps, cops on the take, prostitutes and porn dealers, and egocentric men whose only interest is in maintaining their pleasure, whether it is money or flesh. Herschel, in a manner similar to Pynchon’s protagonist Slothrop, is an innocent adrift, manipulated by powers beyond his control and understanding. In what is his most decisive attempt to take control of some aspect of his life, he kills the German consulate official. In so doing, he ends up losing any control at all; his world is forever controlled by the military, the politicians and the courts.
Everyone Has Their Reasons is a novel drawn from the modern human condition. Authoritarian politicians and fearful citizens combine to create a world where those denoted as scapegoats are made to pay for humanity’s trespasses. It is also a tale of survival and human dignity. Joseph Matthews has created a powerful narrative of a tragically human scenario. It is at turns warm, comedic, compelling, and provocative. Unfortunately, it is also all too contemporary in the concerns it addresses.