Olivier Guez: Looking Evil in the Eye

Driven by a passion for America and extensive research, Olivier Guez has spent the last 20 years reporting on the biggest dramas in modern history. He has authored novels, articles, essays, and a screenplay for a documentary which won the German equivalent of an Oscar. In 2017, he published The Disappearance of Josef Mengele, released in the United States in 2022. This disturbing biographical fiction follows the Nazi criminal’s escape to Latin America after World War II.
© Estelle Hoffert

After several postponed meetings, we finally managed to speak a few days before Christmas as he was about to cross the Swiss border. Olivier Guez is a man in a hurry, constantly on the road. “I write so that I can travel,” says this adventurer and soccer fan, who embarked upon a U.S. tour with Villa Albertine last fall to promote the release of The Disappearance of Josef Mengele. This enthralling investigative novel won the Prix Renaudot in 2017, and looks back over the Nazi doctor’s time on the run. Mengele died in Brazil in 1979 and never paid for the crimes he committed at Auschwitz. “This book is the final installment in a trilogy about post-war Europe, particularly Germany. I wanted to tell this story from a murderer’s point of view,” says the author. In the first book, L’Impossible retour : Une histoire des juifs en Allemagne depuis 1945 (2007), he tried to understand how a society heals after a cataclysmic event, and why the victims of the Holocaust returned home. In the second, a documentary screenplay co-written with director Lars Kraume, he painted a portrait of Fritz Bauer, a German-Jewish prosecutor who hunted Nazi criminals such as Adolf Eichmann, arrested in Argentina.

© Léa Chassagne

It was while researching 1950s Argentina that Olivier Guez came across Josef Mengele, who arrived in Buenos Aires in 1949 with a fake passport obtained via a network of former S.S. officers. “His name has an evil reputation and there is something deviant in his eyes. It took me some time to tame this beast. It helped to write about his fall; the decline, the paranoia, and the solitude of this man.” Drawing on several years of field research and a solid bibliography, the novel is an unabashed work of fiction, although the events portrayed are real. “A novel is stronger than an essay,” says the writer. “I had In Cold Blood by Truman Capote in mind. We don’t know exactly what he made up, but he gives a precise idea of the movements of the two murderers. I wanted to do the same thing with Mengele. I had a responsibility, both to the reader and to myself. My freedom was like that of a filmmaker depicting historical facts.”

A European in America

Born in 1974 and raised in Strasbourg by Jewish, Central-European grandparents who spoke German and were “more French than the French,” Olivier Guez defines himself as a post-war child. “That was the world I grew up in; a gray, ambiguous period that continues to mold European societies today.” While deeply attached to Europe, he has had one foot in the United States since he was a teenager. He first discovered California with a youth group in 1989 at the age of 15. After studying at Sciences Po Strasbourg, the London School of Economics, and the College of Europe in Bruges, he fell in love with the “creative frenzy” of New York City and its extraordinary storytelling power. In the 2000s, as a young journalist, he returned to the U.S. two or three times a year, met writers and intellectuals such as Philip Roth and Francis Fukuyama, and took part in the International Visitor Leadership Program organized by the U.S. State Department. In 2012, he published American Spleen, the account of a journey through America under Obama, from Washington and Chicago to Wisconsin, Montana, Utah, and Arizona. “I made this trip to understand the transformation of the American right, which was still looking for a supreme leader. This was the time of the Tea Parties, which were poorly understood in France. I tried to offer an admittedly imperfect diagnosis of the crisis gripping the country. I had been greatly influenced by Jean Baudrillard’s book America, and was also drawn to the landscapes and vast spaces of the American West.”

© Léa Chassagne

Throughout this literary and documentary road trip, Olivier Guez spoke with right-wing extremists astonished by the attentive Frenchman, spent time on Mormon land, and met writers Lydia Millet and Jim Harrison. The spleen that can be felt in this book is both the author’s and that of an angry America foreshadowing the rise of Trumpism. “I came home completely depressed by the trip, worried about violence, idiocy, and fascism. Ten years later, things are the same – but worse. The only difference is that we now have social media. Another novel aspect is the ultra-polarization of public debate, with part of the left now as radical and crazy as part of the right.” Having reconciled with the United States during his recent book tour, he was delighted to reunite with New York City’s energy and rekindled ties with Chicago. “I fell in love with this city, which reminds me of Buenos Aires – my favorite city and a real source of inspiration. Just like in love stories, you feel something physical and start to dream. That’s what I felt in Chicago.”

Having spent many years reporting for the French and international press, including The New York Times, Olivier Guez now devotes himself to literature and speaking at conferences all over the world. “I always felt more like a writer than a journalist. I enjoy very different things – that’s my freedom,” he says, referring to unique directors such as Werner Herzog and Barbet Schroeder. In recent years, he has traveled extensively across South America – Argentina, Brazil, and Peru – a region that exudes “something exotic and very familiar, which can also be found in certain parts of the United States.” For the last five years, he has been researching the British Empire in the early 20th century – the subject of his next book, which has to be sent to his publisher by the end of winter. “I have done an enormous amount of groundwork; I dislike imprecision, and I believe you can only write narrative non-fiction if you know your subject very well. Whether I am writing about soccer in Argentina or the British Empire, I love to learn. And I am lucky enough to have that as a full-time job.”

The Disappearance of Josef Mengele by Olivier Guez, translated from French by Georgia de Chamberet, Verso Books, 2022.

Article published in the February 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.