If Hitler were found alive . . .; The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., by George Steiner. New York: Simon & Schuster. 170 pp. $13.50.
For the past 37 years, since Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945 , this reviewer has had a recurring fantasy. It is to imagine the scene when the Fuhrer joined the many millions whom he had murdered in the infamous extermination camps. Now George Steiner -- Extraordinary Fellow at Cambridge University, England, professor at the University of Geneva, and brilliant writer on morals, philosophy, and linguistics -- has set a not dissimilar fantasy to paper.
He imagines that a party of Israeli Nazi-hunters has finally located Hitler in the jungles of Brazil and describes the diverse reactions this fact arouses around the world. The result is scintillating, an intellectual, literary tour de force that has already elicited enormous praise and criticism in Britain and is certain to do so in America.
The book has three underlying, interwoven themes. The most important is the assessment of Hitler's historical significance, culminating in the most controversial portion of the book, in which the Fuhrer seeks to justify his deeds by comparing them with Jewish history and taking upon himself the role of the long-awaited Messiah, since it was he who made the creation of the State of Israel possible. The second is the reaction in the world's capitals: in Paris, whether this will reopen the question of wartime collaborators; in Moscow, whether it will require a further rewriting of the falsifications of Stalinist history; in Bonn, whether the acts of Nazism were, after all, exaggerated; in Washington, how this event can be best publicized. The third theme is the attempt of the Israeli captors to analyze their own feelings as they portage this greatest in all history enemy of their people.
Beneath these three themes is a still darker one: did the ancient Hebrew scribes, when copying down the Mosaic laws, make a mistake, set down the wrong message, and thus open the door to all the world's ills?
Since the study of the effect of language on and as a result of human behavior has long been Steiner's primary interest, this book is an incisive addition to the never-ceasing flow of inquiry into the unparalleled magic of Hitler's oratory. He has a prophet foretell that ''there shall come a man whose mouth shall be as a furnace and whose tongue as a sword laying waste. He will know the grammar of hell and teach it to others. He will know the sounds of madness and loathing and make them seem music. Where God said, let there be, he will unsay.'' And -- it is this that has so stirred Steiner's critics -- the author leaves the last word in this book to this ''Other Messiah.''
Like a series of steadily recurring moral shock waves, the question of Hitler's meaning for mankind returns again and again, but never receives a definitive or satisfactory answer. Not only does Steiner pretend to no such answer, but he seems to be telling us that any understanding of Hitlerism is further away than ever. Yet this volume opens up new mystical, almost cabalistic , insights into that meteor of murder which flashed across humanity's heavens a few decades ago. If ever a recent book was unputdownable, this is it.