Innovative psychiatrist Viktor Kosarek tackles a serial killer in 1935 Czechoslovakia in Russell’s The Devil Aspect (Doubleday, Mar.).
Why set the novel in pre-WWII Czechoslovakia?
Czechoslovakia in the 1930s was a new concept, a promise of a bright future built on countless layers of history and culture, that was about to be snuffed out by the darkness of Nazism and later Soviet Communism. Added to this is the immensely rich mix of cultures and creativity that exemplified Czechoslovakia. I’m a huge Kafka fan, and, for me, Kafka embodies that uniquely dark—often darkly humorous—and absurdist creativity of that unique place and time.
Kosarek advances the notion of a “devil aspect” as an explanation for human evil. Can you explain that?
Jungian psychology has comparable—but not exactly matching—concepts. In creating the devil aspect I took Jung a stage further, suggesting that, as both concept and engine in our collective unconscious, there is an archetype that is the psychological embodiment of ineffable, unalloyed evil; that this element is what lies behind all the cruelty, violence, war, and malice of the human race. The theory suggests that this great evil resides in us all, but is only awoken in those whose “psychological immune system” is compromised.
Was anything like the devil aspect part of psychiatry at the time?
Back then, it is perfectly conceivable that the psychiatric establishment would explore such concepts. Today, however, we tend not to think in grand narratives, and we have the knowledge of the crimes committed by the Nazis. We have been exposed to the “banality of evil” and have seen how the most remarkable wickedness can manifest itself in the most unremarkable vessels. I think that for us today, evil is recognized not as a presence, but a deficit or absence: the absence of empathy.
Given the pre-WWII setting, how did you handle foreshadowing?
Many people in the 1930s had a sense of something monstrous to come. However, the majority remained oblivious to the gathering storm, despite the clear intentions expressed in the passing of the Nuremberg laws in September of ’35. And, of course, most Czechs had a sense of approaching doom, given the protests of three million ethnic Germans within the borders of the new republic, combined with the clear territorial ambitions of Hitler. In writing the book the important thing for me, therefore, was to focus on the creeping paranoia of that period and eliminate as much modern hindsight as possible.