Fabulation and Metahistory: W.G. Sebald and Recent German Holocaust Fiction

The UW is putting on a lecture about W.G. Sebald and contemporary German Holocaust literature. Having recently read Will Self’s (via Conversational Reading) article on the same subject, the lecture sounds interesting. Anyone interested in Sebald might consider checking it out.

Thursday • February 4 • 7pm
Katz Lectures in the Humanities presents: Richard Gray
“Fabulation and Metahistory: W.G. Sebald and Recent German Holocaust Fiction”
UW Kane Hall, Room 220, Seattle
Through an examination of W.G. Sebald, Professor Gray’s Katz lecture engages the conflicts between poetic technique and historical reliability that haunt contemporary German Holocaust literature. Richard Gray is Byron W. and Alice L. Lockwood Professor of the Humanities in the Department of Germanics at the University of Washington. He is and author and is editor of the Literary Conjugations series for the University of Washington Press.

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The German Mujahid, by Boualem Sansal – A Review

The German Mujahid
Boualem Sansal, pg 227

Boualem Sansal’s The German Mujahid tries to link Islamist violence, the Holocaust, and the Algerian police state into a larger statement about totalitarian regimes and intolerance. In one way it is an ambitious idea: link seemingly disparate historical events like the Holocaust and Islamist violence in Paris suburbs, while creating a narrative that can plausibly hold the elements together. On the other hand, a book with such themes could easily veer into didactic sermonizing about the evils of totalitarian regimes, lumping them all into one group and not exploring what made them so horrible. While The German Mujahid does put together a plausible narrative, it also suffers from the later problem so that at times it seems as if Sansal can’t afford to wait any longer to tell us about how horrible these regimes are and has to shout it. If I lived in Algeria as he does perhaps I would be shouting, too. But as a work of literature it has a few deficiencies that don’t make it a bad book, just one that doesn’t understand subtly.

The German Mujahid is about two brothers, Rachel and his younger brother Malrich. They have lived in France since childhood, but their parents still live in rural Algeria, the Bled. Their mother is Berber but their father is German, a veteran of the Algerian war of independence.  In 1994, in the midst of the Islamist war in Algeria, their parents and several other villagers are murdered. Rachel returns to the village to take care of the estate and he finds a box with his father’s papers, which indicate that he had been, among other things, an SS officer at Auschwitz. It is a damning realization and Rachel sinks into a depression as he slowly untangles his father’s involvement in the Holocaust and then his subsequent flight to Egypt and Algeria. It is too overwhelming and Rachel sizes on the idea that he has to pay for the sins of the father.  Since his father died without atoning or facing justice, he will do it for him, dying in his garage overcome by car exhaust fumes.

Malrich, a petty criminal living in one of the high rise residences on the outskirts of Paris, follows the same investigation as Rachel. Using Rachel’s diary, Malrich also comes to terms with his father’s past. But Malrich, instead of wanting to pay for the sins of the father, internalizes the role of the victim and sees around him in the residence and in Algeria just more Nazis using whatever ideology they can to control and brutalize. Malrich sees the local imam and his thuggish Islamist  toughs as just a new incarnation of the Gestapo. He wants to take them on, fight them before they can start new death camps, which he fears the residences will become. Yet the French government seems unwilling to take on this fight at the end of the book he gives his summation of the state of things.

The Islamists are already here, they’re settled and here we are,  bound hand and foot, caught in the trap. If they don’t exterminate us, they’ll stop us from living. Worse still, they’ll turn us into our own guards, deferential to the emir, merciless to each other. We’ll be Kapos.

It is clear that Sansal sees the Islamist’s goals are not too dissimilar to those of the Nazi’s. He is not subtle about this at all. He also extends his criticism, though, to the government in Algeria, whose socialist state has been repressive from the beginning, only getting worse when it put down the Islamist terror campaign in the 90s.

While equivalency between horrors is wasted math, the totalitarian traits of all the groups is not in question and Sansal is right to make the links. In the context of Arab and Algerian literature, too, the book is important because it addresses topics that have either been avoided, or baned. Sansal it seems is trying to break the Islamist and Algerian issues from their respective religious and nationalistic imperatives, and make a comparison that is outside of the specific grievances that make for easy justifications, and say, look, you are doing the same.

The question, then, is how well does Sansal do this? Does he address the responsibility for guilt? Does he link the themes together adequately? In many ways he doesn’t succeed. The problem is the two brothers are so extreme they become embodiments of an inflexible rhetorical position that seems everything in black and white. Their approach to confronting these issues is to either die or to become paranoid, which could be called a psychic shock as the confront the past, but in reality makes them unable to actually confront the horrors they want to confront. Suicide is a private act that redeems no one and Malrich’s street tough persona doesn’t yet have the ability to organize and confront what he fears. And this is Sansal’s problem: he describes the problem, but doesn’t know what else to do but collapse in desperation.

The sense of desperation is partly from the literary device he uses: each brother writes their own journal entries. The journals are detailed and move the story along quickly, but they also create a myopia that places the individual’s experience at the center of the story and becomes a self reinforcing set of complaints, so that instead of seeing their lives in a larger context (even against the third person description of a street) you only have the one frame. While no writer has to put a story in context, Sansal seems to want to make a larger point, but what he produces is panic. A personal panic set against shadowy terror. Perhaps panic is the emotion you would feels if you were Malrich, but in the book it comes across an author more interested in warning the world than writing literature.

Perhaps given Sansal’s theme that is not a bad thing.

‘The Informers’ by Juan Gabriel Vásquez reviewed at the Los Angles Times

The Los Angles Times has a good review of The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vásquez. I’ve seen other reviews of the book (if I was a better blogger I would actually link to it) and they were all good. The book is an interesting mix of history and story telling that ranges over the last 60 years of Columbian and European history:

“The Informers” is narrated by Gabriel Santoro, a Bogotá reporter and author of a book that recounts the life story of a Jewish German immigrant named Sara Guterman whose family was one of many to escape to Colombia during the early years of Nazism. The primary distinction of “A Life in Exile,” this book within a book, is the review it receives from Santoro’s identically named father. The elder Santoro, a professor with a reputation as the moral conscience of the embattled nation, inexplicably savages the book in a prominent newspaper.

When his son confronts him, the scholar elaborates on his dismissal: “Memory isn’t public. . . . [T]hose who through prayer or pretense had arrived at a certain conciliation, are now back to square one. . . . you come along, white knight of history, to display your courage by awakening things . . . you and your parasitical book, your exploitative book, your intrusive book.”

The plot gets more complicated as it goes on and you’ll have to read the review to see more, but Adam Mansbach’s conclusion should make that an easy decision.

Vásquez is a hugely skilled writer, his prose weighted with authority and carefully observed detail, and he is a dexterous weaver of voices and time periods. “The Informers” fares best when he allows his protagonist to stay in the moment, to build scenes instead of imagining wide swaths of the past. The journalist’s visit to Enrique Deresser is gripping: revelatory and elusive, understated and devastating. Sara Guterman’s recollection of an explosive 1943 dinner the Deressers held for a Nazi named Bethke is deeply dramatic, rife with tension and complexity. The emotional impact of such scenes — in which a nation’s unresolved pain is distilled, writ small, in the actions of a single man or the volleys exchanged over a dinner table — hints at the power of which Vásquez is capable.

The Reader

When working with the Holocaust in a film or book the question that inevitably comes up is, can one make art from the Holocaust? And if so, to what end? The Reader, even its complexities, cannot escape the difficulty of these questions and stumbles even as it seems to try to question how one should approach the Holocaust. The subtleties of the film undercut its overt statements about the subject, and it’s these subtleties that makes The Reader, although excellent and never uneven in terms of acting or story, unable to completely resolve the needs of the story and the questions of suitability.

The Reader tells the story of Michael and Anna who meet in the early 50’s when Michael is 15 or 16 and Anna is in her late 30’s. They begin a passionate affair that is filled with sex and long reading sessions when Michael would read to Anna from his school books. Michael distances himself from his family and his friends as he and Anna spend more time together, finally culminating in a bicycle trip through the country side. Suddenly, though, Anna is offered a promotion where she works and instead of taking it, moves out and says nothing to Michael. Naturally, Michael is devastated but life goes on and the move cuts to show him as a law student in the early 60’s. He is a law student without any particular convictions until his professor takes him to the trial of 6 women SS concentration camp guards. One of the guards turns out to be Anna, and not only is she implicated in the mass killing of prisoners in a fire in a church, but she is said to have been the leader of the guards. Anna seems emotionless and does not deny anything like the other women. Instead, her only defense seems to be is that it was a good job, a better one than the one at Siemens. At one point in the questioning she asks the Judge, what would you done? Implying it was perfectly natural to take the job as a guard. During the trial, though, Michael realizes that she is illiterate and that she could not have written the confession where she takes responsibility for not freeing the prisoners in the burning church. Michael wants to tell her that she shouldn’t take the blame, but he can’t and she is sentenced to the maximum time in prison. Michael forgets about her and marries and has a daughter, but haunted by her he cannot relate to other women and lives a solitary life until, one day, he sees one of his old books and decides to read to her again using cassettes. He reads book after book as he rekindles a forgotten love and she receives the tapes which she listens to at first, but then uses to learn to read. After years of this, she is set to be released, but Michael still wants to keep his distance and the day before leaving the prison hangs herself. She doesn’t explain why she did it, but she does will all her money and possessions to Michael. The movie then cuts to New York sometime latter. Michael goes to meet one of the survivors from the camp who had written the book that implicated Anna. She won’t take Anna’s money, which Michael says Anna wanted to give her. She says nothing good ever came from the camps, yet she does take a little tin tea box that Anna had stored the money in and which looked like one her father had given her when she was a child. This pleases Michael and he returns to Germany satisfied. The closing scene is of Michael and his daughter at Anna’s grave just before he tells her about Anna.

It is clear even from the above that Anna is a difficult charter to understand. It is even more so because the film is not Anna’s story, but Michael’s story about Anna. Yet it is clear that she is either cold and callous or someone who has so compartmentalized her life that her role in the Holocaust has little meaning to her. When she tells the judge, what would you have done, she makes it clear that she does not see much in the way of the moral dimensions of her choice. Her choice has the physical consequences—jail, poverty—but not the moral. It is possible she even believed in the process of murder. Whatever the case, there is no Poe-like Tell Tale Heart to redeem her, only her history. (Is it even possible to believe someone like her has recanted? But that is a different issue.) When she dies she gives her money only to Michael, not to any one else, as the warden makes clear when she says, “she left everything to you (Michael).” Michael, however, says to the survivor in New York that Anna wanted her to have the money. Most likely, since this is Michael’s story, Anna said nothing. Anna did what she did and the greater shame was to admit she couldn’t read—a truly unbalanced view of what is shameful.

If the complexity of the film were to end there, the film would be another addition to the literature of the banality of evil. The story, though, adds two redemptive elements: Anna learns to read; and Michael is able to feel good about her. When Anna learns to read the thing that shamed her most is now gone. She has reached beyond her failures. Yet the triumph in light of her past is not a triumph, but a trick: look she can change. But what has changed? There is no redemption here, just an obfuscation of the past. Could any thing redeem her? The Reader leaves plenty of room to understand that the tendency to see redemption when a character has overcome some hardship is easily misplaced. And Michael’s need to redeem her, too, is a false redemption. He doesn’t want her to be redeemed for her sake, but so that he can feel that his never ending love for her is not the love for a monster. He is the one who insists in giving the money to a Jewish cause; he is the one who insists on seeing the survivor. The redemption for him, then, is a way to redeem himself, to make up for what he couldn’t do for her, for what he has done to his daughter. In short, Michael deludes himself, because delusion is pleasing.

None of these redemptive issues would matter much if the film wasn’t about the Holocaust. The Holocaust, though, adds a further layer, because playing with ideas of redemption while using the history of mas murder can easily diminish the horror. Can the Holocaust be used as a backdrop or as Jacob Heilbrunn recently wrote, “the further the Holocaust recedes into the past, the more it’s being exploited to create a narrative of redemption.”  While Heilbrunn’s article doesn’t examine The Reader in depth, it does raise the question, can such huge crimes be the materials for ethical delemas? The reason it is important to ask the question is because The Reader does not stop with the two moments of redemption above. While one could mistake this as a redemptive movie, its complexities do lead to a wider, more nuanced reading. It is when Michael goes to New York the problems start. When Michael talks to the survivor she tells him, “nothing good ever comes of the camps,” and yet when Michael leaves the movie shows her placing the tea tin in a place of honor, as if something great has been recovered. Yet isn’t the tin something good coming of the camps? Moreover, the tin carries another act of redemption: from Anna to Michael to the survivor. A nice tidy ending. It is when Michael makes the visit, the film begins to blur the lines between the complexities of Michael’s reactions and how the Holocaust is perceived and can be contemplated. The survivor says nothing good can come of the camps, and yet one of the last images of the film is something good coming of the story, and by extension, the camps. It is a tricky thing to on the one had show Michael’s delusion, yet not sentimentalize the return of the tin, as if that made everything whole. Unfortunately, The Reader chooses to wrap the film with a tidy resolution that can make one feel good, but resolves nothing.

To return to the question that opened the article: can one make art from the Holocaust? Of course, and Imre Kertez’s Fatelessness is a perfect example, but as The Reader shows, even the best works can easily loose focus and bring resolutions to where there are none, only the longing for the end of a story whose backdrop even 60 years latter is not just a forgotten ruin.