Is violence justified

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

William T. Vollmann hopes terrorists will read his new book.

If just one Palestinian suicide bomber, for instance, reads the part about “proportionality and discrimination” — if you’re going to commit a violent act, draw a line between combatants and noncombatants — Vollmann says, “I would be happy.”

The Sacramento writer, dubbed “America’s leading literary renegade” by The New York Times, makes no excuses for such idealism. And there’s no reason for him to start now.

Vollmann has spent the last two decades — between writing at least 15 other novels and works of nonfiction — searching through war zones, prisons, ghettos and libraries for his 3,352-page answer to one question: When is violence justified?

The result is “Rising Up and Rising Down,” a seven-volume literary and philosophical quest that meanders through mankind’s violent past and the author’s personal experiences in the war zones of Afghanistan, Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, Cambodia and elsewhere. In his study of the rise and fall of regimes and empires, nearly every world leader is mentioned, along with more-obscure cases of torture and crime.

Hovering between something epic and something out of control, this is a serious, ambitious work. You sense a man with a great obligation and an inescapable sadness.

“This book has gripped me, year after year,” he writes. “I am very relieved to be free of it; I hate it. At the same time I am proud of it, and I hope that it can benefit someone.”

The sole survivor of a sniper attack in the former Yugoslavia, he kidnapped and rescued a child prostitute enslaved in Thailand. He has seen enough innocent suffering to have earned the right to write this book.

Vollmann plunges into one modern heart of darkness after another. The result is an encyclopedic history of violence that dissolves into often honest, lyrical and descriptive tales.

World War II, the Jews, terrorism and anti-Semitism get their fair share of coverage. “I am 50 percent German,” he says in a phone interview. “I always grew up with that hanging over me. I am really haunted by it …”

He feels “a special obligation and a special right to talk about the Holocaust, particularly in America,” where “we have this dangerous, false conception that you should limit yourself to your own little group.

“Precisely because I am not a Jew, and I have no immediate interest in the Holocaust, it makes it all the more important for me to talk about the Holocaust.”

In addition to sporadic chapters concerning anti-Semitism from the Middle Ages through World War II, Vollmann documents the overwhelming hatred directed toward Israel and the Jews in places such as modern-day Yemen and Iraq.

One Yemenite told him in 2002: “I don’t believe in elections. Elections are controlled by the Jews. The clean man, he doesn’t like this poison. The Twin Trading Towers, who exploded them? Only Jews! Mossads! Arabs never kill civilian people!”

Vollmann responds: “Except for Jews.”

The Yemenite agrees. “The Jews! We must kill them!”

In another tragic account, a Yemenite remembers: “All my friends were Jews. My first love was a Jewish girl. I have Jewish friends and even after 1967 I don’t feel that they are Jews: They are my friends. They left Aden after 1967, of course. And they did not go to Israel, they went to the U.K.”

“And why did they leave?” asks Vollmann.

“Oh, there was an uprising here. They fired their houses.”

Vollmann: “So they drove them out?”

“Oh, that was just one or two incidents. And that was after we knew that they’d occupied the Sinai Desert. Ah, before that our relations were like this,” he sighed. “We used to go swimming with them on the beach …”

Vollmann covers a broad geographical and political swath and, on the whole, I trusted his reporting and historical accounts. More importantly, I felt that I better understood some of the characters he meets. Maybe I even felt closer to them. And that is one of his objectives.

Another, he says, is “to take the next step, now that I have some opinions. I would like to do something practical.

“Writing about things is not enough. I would like to help people in a more concrete way. If I could figure out a way to be a better empathetic bridge, introduce people that hate each other and get them to talk.”

That includes bridging the gap between Muslims and Jews — “to very carefully, tactfully explain to Muslims what it is that Jews have suffered, it could do some good … And we could show a genuine desire to collect information about the suffering of Muslims.

“We need to let them know, we want to understand you and we want you to understand us.”

If anyone can do that, he probably can.

Rising Up and Rising Down” by William T. Vollmann (3,352 pages, McSweeny’s Books, $120).