Dallas, TX –
Thousands of thrillers have used genocide as the big threat, like the Holocaust that hovers in the background of so many World War II yarns. But in his novel The Exception - his first to be published in English - Danish author Christian Jungersen puts mass murder front and center -- as a trigger for suspense but also as the chief topic of debate for his characters. A philosophical thriller, The Exception considers the question who among us could commit atrocities, and sets it not among soldiers or sadists but the staff in a Copenhagen think tank devoted to studying genocide. In other words, take the most humanitarian, high-minded Westerners around - people like us, the best people - and given the right circumstances, circumstances that needn't even be that extreme, we will still savage each other.
In this case, it's ordinary, petty office politics that turn terrifying. In The Exception, the female researchers and librarians at the tiny Danish Center for Information on Genocide receive death threats, anonymous e-mails that possibly came from one of the Serbian war criminals they've written about. What's more, the center itself is in danger of a takeover by a larger nonprofit.
The tense atmosphere causes staff alliances to turn poisonous. One researcher was kidnapped on an earlier mission to Kenya, and her flashbacks make her panic. Another was bullied growing up and turns resentful and paranoid. The office workers are soon breaking into files for evidence against each other or ostracizing one member in an effort to drive her away.
In between these efforts, the Center's staff write about Darfur or Cambodia allowing Jungerson to load in fascinating historical data on torture - like the infamous Stanley Milgram and the experiments that have been conducted on what motivates death camps and lynch mobs.
In effect, The Exception is one of these experiments, with Jungerson setting out to demonstrate what studies have shown that it's not just mad racists who torture and kill. No matter our country or background, 60 to 80 percent of us would be willing lynchers or death camp guards. That's one of the novel's weaknesses - the feeling that the office workers are just lab rats in Jungerson's maze. Another weakness is the novel's flat-footed prose, whether that's the fault of Jungerson or his translator, Anna Paterson, I can't say. But when he's reporting grim ethnic cleansings, it works chillingly to the book's advantage. For pages of everyday dialogue, it can plod.
Despite its dark subject, Jungerson's 500-page novel has been a bestseller in Europe. And if it were about 100 pages shorter, The Exception would be exceptional. As it is, it remains an unusual, provocative novel, part PhD thesis, part cliffhanger.
Jerome Weeks is a former book columnist for the Dallas Morning News and writes about books for artsjournal.com.
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