Jacques Chessex: A Jew Must Die

Chessex, Jacques (2009), Un Juif Pour L’exemple, Grasset
ISBN 09782253129615-4
[English edition: Chessex, Jacques, A Jew Must Die, Bitter Lemon Press
ISBN 9781904738510
translated by W. Donald Wilson]

I’ve long meant to write something about the Swiss novelist and poet Jacques Chessex, whose work I admire greatly. Today’s election pushed me to reread the last novel he published during his lifetime (it’s not his final novel, two additional novels were published posthumously), the searing and quite excellent A Jew Must Die. The sensational English title hides the matter-of-fact nature of the book. In French, its title is Un Juif Pour L’Exemple (~ “a Jew to make an example of”) and while some of the leading characters in the book are indeed subsumed by hate, the murder at the center of the book is based on political calculations, in addition to antisemitic hatred. The story had been told in a book and documentary in the 1970s (“Le crime nazi de Payerne – Un juif tué pour l’exemple”), hence the title of the original novel. The murder and its description is horrifying, but this is not about the murder per se. Chessex wrote a novel about the village he was born in and the social context in which a murder like this could have arisen. The novel shows us the complacent, maybe complicit village population, and a police force that doesn’t particularly care about the fate of this missing Jew. The reaction to the novel’s publication, finally, that treated Chessex with anger and derision, confirms the quiet anger that spurred Chessex to write a book about an event that both anticipates the Shoah and exemplifies much that led to it. Chessex’s writing in the novel is excellent, using a nominally neutral, sober style, but infusing it with passion, with occasional cascades of rhetoric and description. The description of the murder, with its three entrances, like a dark mirror of a fairy tale quest, is terrifying and compelling. Everything about this novel, except for its size, is enormous; towering above it all is the conscience and care of Chessex and his literary and historical conscience. I don’t think it is his best novel necessarily (from the ones I read, I think both L’Ogre and Hosanna are slightly better?), but it is a very good novel and certainly better than most fiction that is published about the Shoah these days. Chessex was a great writer and this novel shows why: a sharp intelligence, sense of style and conscience combined to create this dense but essential book. I have not read the translation, and while the change in titles makes me worry a bit, the novel doesn’t pose obvious linguistic puzzles, so I can’t see why the translation shouldn’t be fine. Read this book in whatever form you can find it. It is very good.

A Jew Must Die is based on a true story which the inhabitants of the village in question would love to forget. It’s ancient history! tells him one of the antisemites he portrays in the book upon meeting him 25 years after the events (though this particular person regrets nothing). An ardent Nazi, an antisemitic priest, and some farmers get together and decide to murder a Jew as a sign to all the other Jews who are sucking the lifeblood from the country, as they see it. Chessex is clear to distinguish between the general opinion and resentment towards Jews, which is generally shared in the area at the time, and the gruesome murder of the specific Jew in the novel, which is undertaken in secret by a small group of people. They decide to make an example of one of the Jews and pick a local merchant. After murdering him (in a spectacularly written scene, as I said), they cut him up and stuff him into milk cans like the one on the cover of the English edition. I’m not really spoiling you here – Chessex doesn’t rely on that kind of suspense. He introduces the Jew who will be murdered pretty late – he’s more interested in the social and psychological description of the murderers. Villages being villages, eventually they are found out, and convicted to jail sentences of varying lengths. The antisemitic priest fled the country and moved to Germany where he was arrested after the war and extradited to Switzerland. Yet there is no sense of relief in that. No jail can erase the tragedy from history – and moreover, the fellow villagers, murmuring assent to calumnies hurled at Jews in bars and casual conversations, have not been jailed or even prosecuted, not having committed a crime in the conventional sense.

While the events have happened as described, and all the people in the novel go by their real names, Chessex never makes the documentary character of the novel into a character in the book that competes with the horrifying events described within, in stark contrast to the vain self-reflections in books like Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which I like less with every year that passes. My too favorable review is here. There are a few asides, some conversations with the reader about plausibility but they don’t serve to undercut the story, they just underline the authorial urgency that powers the whole novel. Chessex never discusses or cites his sources, but since he was a boy when the murder happened, and the principal actors all went on trial, he has access to both firsthand knowledge and an obvious source of documentation. Yet by not discussing this, we are not asked to admire his skill or ability to research or present the information, we are free to deal with the nature of what happened. He devotes one single chapter to reflections about himself and his motivations in writing the book, but he closes with remarks on the murder victim’s funeral. The self-reflections are primarily meant to assuage the writer’s guilt – not in inventing details, but in writing fiction about the Shoah at all. “Je raconte une histoire immonde et j’ai honte d’en ecrire le moindre mot,” he writes, and it is a testament to his writing that we fully believe that he feels conflicted and shameful about writing this book. In Binet’s book, an assertion like that would have smelled of a performance of shame, and yet in Chessex writing, it becomes part of the urgent fabric of the book. Writing about the events makes the author complicit, in a sense, but coming from the same village, going to school with the children of the murderers already puts the author in a difficult situation. The novel ends on a prayer for forgiveness and we understand. There are people who are able to shrug off the way they are complicit in the horrors of this world, and it never fails to stun me. Chessex goes down a different path: understanding what happened and why it happened is step one to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

I may have reread the book today because of the possibility of Marine LePen becoming President of France, in connection with the French language of the book and the rural support of the FN in France. It seemed fitting. However. Chessex is a Swiss writer and the two books that most came to mind upon rereading this one are also Swiss. They are two plays by Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt, two of Switzerland’s best writers in all of that country’s literary history. Both spent a good deal of their writing life criticizing Switzerland, and criticizing the Swiss role during the Third Reich. Frisch’s play Andorra, read by practically all German high school students at some point, focuses on the mob mentality of hate, as does Dürrenmatt’s play The Visit. Frisch doesn’t name anyone, in fact, his play is a thought exercise, not even naming Jews as the persecuted group, and Dürrenmatt’s play is even further removed from the historical background. Both, however, manage to describe with remarkable skill how volatile villages and small towns can be if given the right ideology and the right solution to perceived problems. However, their playful distance to historical events, the authorial insistence on cleverness and skill over historical urgency has always felt a bit off to me. If you look at Frisch’s reaction to and treatment of Celan, you should feel an even stronger sense of unease. Jacques Chessex wrote a novel that insists on the historical and local roots of the events that happened; you can’t abstract from the facts without losing some vital elements. Both Frisch and Dürrenmatt’s plays are important, but the extraordinary quality of Chessex novel becomes more pronounced when you compare it to the work of fellow French writers.

Chessex’s novel caused outrage in his home village. Insults rained, ranging from articles, speeches to a carnival float showing the writer pulling a bunch of milk cans out of which bones poked, in essence confirming much the author didn’t make entirely explicit. Payenne, even many decades after the murder, is still Payenne. There is a straight line leading from the events of the novel to us today, the contingency of history, and this book, quiet and angry, gruesome and sad, offers us a link. As a German, this link between 1940s hate and today’s population rings true, as does the wish to forget about history. My East German grandmother’s village used to have a small, but infamous concentration camp but nobody in the village ever mentions it or likes it being mentioned. It’s a village full of people complicit in unbelievable crimes against humanity where nobody ever talks about it, except to discuss tales of being sometimes hungry during war time. Today, the village’s youth is full of current or former neo-nazis and nobody sees the connection. German culture and literature performs shame, dishonest, with a slight self-righteous twist. It is what makes so much of German literature not written by immigrants so dull, as I’ve noted here and there. Care and honesty in this literature is rare these days. So as someone feeling the need for an écriture like that, Jacques Chessex’ achievement shines even brighter. Jacques Chessex was a fantastic writer and Un Juif Pour L’Exemple is an important, a great novel – and I’m not sure the title and layout picked by Bitter Lemon Press are entirely appropriate, but my misgivings are entirely overshadowed by the gratitude I feel for the fact that they translated this book to begin with. There’s also a movie out, directed by Jacob Berger. I have not been able to get my hands on a copy, virtual or physical, yet, but as far as I can tell, Berger includes the reaction to the novel as part of the movie’s story, which is an interesting and laudable decision. I cannot vouch for the movie but I can vouch for the novel. Read it. That is all. PS. If you have an idea how I can get my fingers on that dang movie, please tell me.


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John Boyne: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Boyne, John (2007), The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Definitions
ISBN 978-0-099-48782-1

The story of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is very difficult to describe. Usually we give some clues about the book on the cover, but in this case we think that would spoil the reading of the book. We think it’s important that you start to read without knowing what it is about.

This is what it says on the back of my edition and I can’t say I disagree. Well, I don’t think you should read or even touch this book, but if you are bent on reading it, the advice above is sound. This review will contain spoilers, lots, really. So, do not read on if you really want to read the book.

Now, for all the others: excellent choice. It’s one of the worst books I’ve read in a while and I regret every second I spent with it. The writing is mostly decent, the construction clever, but its many flaws overshadow the rest so much it’s barely worth mentioning the positive aspects in such a short review. According to interviews he gave, John Boyne wrote this one in a matter of days, on an inspiration, without constructing it beforehand as he usually does. Instead of devoting a certain amount of thought and consideration to a topic that has been the subject of much writing so far, he basically wings it. Reading The Boy With The Striped Pyjamas it’s quite obvious what the idea was. Not working on it, thinking through the kinks, making it work, however, has marred the book, making it into the mess it is. Not that that’s any concern to Boyne, who made it big with the book that sold incredibly well, and was both generously translated and made into a high-profile movie. So, seen from that angle, the book is a huge success, and its flaws go a long way in explaining why that is the case.

I’m starting with the plot and, just a reminder, there will be spoilers: The story is about Bruno, the son of a prominent Nazi officer. His father is relocated to Auschwitz in 1943 and the whole family has to follow. So they move from Berlin to Poland, and Bruno is understandably miffed that he has to leave his friends behind and his old haunts, but he’s not the only one. Everybody hates it there, in the house that is so close to the camp that you can watch the prisoners from it, and they hate it because nothing much happens, because there are few children, because the house is much smaller and much less comfortable than their accommodations in Berlin. Now and then Nazis visit, which is bothersome but on the whole, it’s boring. Until, that is, Bruno discovers the camp where he finds that hundreds of people walk around in striped pajamas and, most importantly, children. He walks up to the fence and strikes up a friendship with a boy on the other side, they talk and find out they’re not just the same age, they’ve been born on the very same day.

During the period of time that follows, Bruno has a few altercations with a Nazi officer who appears to be just generally mean-spirited; also, his friendship with Shmuel, the boy on the other side, grows and grows until, at the end, Shmuel reports worries. Shmuel’s father is gone and the boy has been looking for him all over the camp. Bruno decides to help and dons a striped pajama, which nicely fits the shaved cranium that he sports on account of an infestation with lice. Shmuel lifts up the fence (the spot where they sit and talk is apparently the only one where that is possible because there “the base is not properly attached to the ground”) and Bruno crawls in. When night falls over Auschwitz, the two boys are rounded up with a number of other prisoners, led to the gas chambers. As we hear the door fall shut behind the boys, Bruno’s story basically ends. The last chapter tells us of the aftermath of the events, how the family moves back to Berlin, how they are all mystified by Bruno’s disappearance. When the father finds out what happened, he is devastated, loses all will to live and

[a] few months after that some other soldiers came […] and Father was ordered to go with them, and he went without complaint and he was happy to do so because he didn’t really mind what they did to him anymore.

That poor SS officer. The book closes with a moralistic two-liner, more or less reiterating the old line about being watchful because something like that could happen anywhere. Yeah. It is these two lines which may have prompted many critics, inexplicably, to suggest that this book was a salient and important contribution to literature in general and Shoah literature in particular. Nothing could be further from the truth. John Boyne’s book’s premise, two boys of the exact same age meeting in such a situation may be improbable but that is fine. What isn’t is the underlying, larger premise: that a nine-year old son of a Nazi official would not know what a Jew is (there’s a discussion in the book where his sister explains to him what a Jew is), that he would not recognize the star of David on the “striped pajama” his best friend’s wearing. This is really the central assumption: a completely and utterly innocent boy stumbles into that kind of situation and dies at the hands of this atrocious machinery.

Personally, I found that incredibly hard to swallow. I would contrast this with the haunting episode in Jorge Semprun’s great novel Le Grand Voyage that takes place at a train station in Trier, where the main character’s transport, on its way to Buchenwald, makes a stop:

Il y a une gosse d’une dizaine d’années, avec ses parents, juste en face de notre wagon. Il écoute ses parents, il regarde vers nous, il hoche la tête. Puis le voilà qui part en courant. Puis le voilà qui revient en courant, avec une grosse pierre à la main. Puis le voilà qui s’approche de nous et qui lance la pierre, de toutes ses forces, contre l’ouverture près de laquelle nous nous tenons.

This then becomes part of a discussion between the protagonist and his companion, the mysterious gars de Sémur, who cries out in triumph: ha, see, these are the damn Germans. The protagonist, however, resists this. He asks what happens, how this boy has turned into a Nazi, what makes someone a Nazi, what leads to the boy being outside the train and him inside. The passage closes with this comment

Je me demande combien d’Allemands il va falloir tuer encore pour que cet enfant allemand ait une chance de ne pas devenir un boche. Il n’y est pour rien, ce gosse et il y est pour tout, cependant.

The doubt, the questions of how children turn into hateful creatures, espousing ideologies that they don’t even understand, all this is completely absent from Boyne’s book. Bruno’s just innocent and good. Has he never heard radio broadcasts ranting about Jews, never had a class that taught him about races, never saw one of the ubiquitous posters on the streets? That is strange and completely unbelievable but not enough for Boyne. Boyne is determined to purge his protagonist of all worldliness, of all connections to regular Germans and goes one step further, descending into complete idiocy. See, Bruno doesn’t get the word “Führer” and misunderstands it as “Fury”; dito with “Auschwitz” which turns in Bruno’s wondrous ears into “Out-with”. I do understand that the word Führer may sound strange to English ears, but I can assure you it doesn’t to German ears. There is no conceivable reason why Bruno should have difficulty understanding these things, especially since Bruno’s not stupid or hard of hearing or something like that.

One may cite his age, he is, after all, only nine. It’s an interesting age, since I think Berlin’s streets were largely judenrein by the time Bruno was alert enough to take in his surroundings. The boy in Semprun’s novel’s older as well. Maybe Bruno’s just too young? Do you remember how you perceived the world when you were his age? It’s hard to tell, isn’t it, so many years later? But see, when I was 8 years old the BRD (West Germany) took over the GRD (East Germany), and I vividly remember going to marches before that, loving heroes of the socialist state such as Ernst Thälmann and Thomas Müntzer, being outraged at the 200.000 killed in the bombing of Dresden (I was a gullible kid) and so forth. Now, I shouldn’t generalize from my own example, but the vividness of my memories is striking enough for me to reject Boyne’s assumptions out of hand. Especially since Boyne’s portrayal of Bruno is not restricted to the boy alone. There is one ardent Nazi in his book, two, if we count the father who is very conflicted about what he does sometimes. The other Germans are nice or even oppositional.

Since the book’s simple structure frequently invites us to read it in a symbolical manner, I suggest reading Bruno’s family as representing the German people. The grandparents, i.e. the past, the tradition, are against fascism, Bruno, the future, is completely oblivious of it, and friendly and trusting, and the parents are conflicted about it all. It’s really fascinating but Boyne has found a way to talk about the Shoah without having German perpetrators (the few Nazis don’t count. The old fairy tale of a takeover of Germany by a group of madmen explicitly exculpates Germans, that’s why it was so strong and popular after the war) or Jewish victims, really. There are victims, but the true tragedy of the book is not Shmuel’s (whose name is reminiscent of Busch’s infamous antisemitic caricature called Schmulchen Schievelbeiner) death, but Bruno’s. This seems to whisper: see, it’s not just Jews, it could happen to you as well. There is no sense of why it was Jews especially that bore the brunt of the holocaust, no historical sense of context and connections, and in what sense it “could happen to you as well”. By accident? In the 1930s, were Jews just in the wrong place at the wrong time? By accident on the wrong side of the fence?

Now, you could complain: doesn’t Boyne call his book a fable? Look, it says so right on the cover. Yeah well, that Boyne would call his book a fable is ridiculous and, to an extent disturbing. At the very least it’s a cop-out. There is a responsibility that comes with the topic and Boyne sidesteps it by applying that label. Yes, the tone of the writing does resemble such modern fables as Le Petit Prince but the content is different. Fables usually have no direct connection to concrete historical and political contexts, they are didactic, but they take a detour, by using anthropomorphic characters or personifications. The coincidences and improbabilities in this book do have a tinge of that, but little more than a tinge. The similarity is closer to magical realism than to actual fables. All that the label does is offer Boyne a way out of accountability. He doesn’t even work within an alternative history framework, like Tarantino’s new movie or books like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, at least that would be an unlikely reading, since most details fit the historical situation.

What’s disturbing about this label is the slight white-washing that the events experience at Boyne’s hand which is exacerbated by that label and the noncommittal attitude it betrays. He took the horror out of the events, and downplayed both Germans’ and Jews’ roles in it, as I maintained earlier. The Shoah, in Boyne’s book, is a given and not awfully interesting. Boyne focuses on the two boys at the fence, one of his points, presumably, being that chance put one outside and the other inside. But it’s not chance, is it? It’s a culturally ingrained ideology that had been stable for decades, an ideology that is still going strong. Why did Bruno’s father do what he did? Love of his country, is suggested. Why did his wife go along with it? There is little in the book that would help us answer these questions. See. this book is didactic, admonishing its readers to never forget that these things could happen again, but it is a wholly empty admonishment since it doesn’t offer its readers a way to understand why these things happened. Boyne makes, in a very pronounced and annoying manner, a point about roles that we assume and the uniforms we wear; in this way, wearing the uniform makes Bruno’s father a Nazi and wearing the striped pyjama, in the end, makes Bruno a victim. But this is a highly problematic point because, again, Boyne makes his discussions of victimhood judenrein. Bruno doesn’t become a Jew because of his behavior, he’s just a prisoner, marked by his clothes and mistaken in the dark by the guards.

Thus, Boyne gets by with the least amount of commitment and thinking. Mind you, he’s not the first to look at this angle but the many books that treat this subject in a infinitely more satisfying manner (most of those are for adults, such as Edgar Hilsenrath’s stupefying novel The Nazi and the Barber) how us the problem with the issue. One which is read by teens in school, is Max Frisch’s play Andorra, wherein a village’s prejudice and hate convinces one of their own that he’s a Jew. He starts to behave like a stereotypical Jew and is murdered in the end. He is murdered because everyone else believes he’s a Jew. It’s not as simple as wearing the wrong clothes. Frisch’s point is that prejudice against Jews is about more than simple appearance. It’s a pervasive complex of stereotypes, and one that a majority of the population shared. This pervasive, generally accepted prejudice made the Shoah, the efficient, calculated murder of millions in one of the most progressive European nations possible. To mark it as an accident is a stupendous rewriting of history. Is it an excuse that this a a book for children? It’s not. For one thing, the allusive nature of Boyne’s narrative, where even the gas chamber and Bruno’s death is never made explicit, limits the age group to one that has been educated about the Shoah before reading the book. And for another, Boyne creates a false, a wrong representation of the era, and no difficulty can excuse that. Boyne’s weirdly benign reading of the period is, however, quite en vogue these days.

I’ve not read another book by John Boyne and I never, ever, will, but judging from The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, he is a decent writer who doesn’t like to think much. Yes, I said decent writer. If we divest the book of all that I find unbearable about it, what is left behind is a competently structured story, mostly somewhat well written. It’s written from the perspective of a child and you can see Boyne earnestly trying to convey a child’s voice here, and for the most part he gets that voice right. Sometimes that voice slips into a cranky mode but that’s it. However, as with most mediocre books about children, I have the impression that he confuses innocence with stupidity. At one point, Bruno’s asked whether he was watching something and he said he was just seeing it, and that was, apparently, a very smart distinction, or so the author tells us (it’s not), but there’s clearly a confusion, too, at work here, because, if the book were not a “fable” Boyne’s hero would be stupendously stupid, incapable of seeing, really. See, Boyne doesn’t just talk down talks down to his readers by presenting a whitewashed version of history, he even talks down to his own character, which the last chapter makes clear, which appears to be written from Bruno’s perspective since it’s written in his voice, which is revealing.

Boyne thinks too little of his readers and too much of himself. The result is a crappy book that I wish I’d never read and a dangerous book that I wish no-one would read. It is now that we need to remember our history as it was not as we would like it to be. People like David Irving are gaining leeway, the current pope is going down a very problematic path and overall antisemitism has been on the rise during the past years. We need to remember. We need to understand. Boyne understands nothing.


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Paris Confidential: On Ariel Dorfman’s “Konfidenz”

Dorfman, Ariel (2003), Konfidenz, Dalkey Archive
ISBN 1-56478-293-X
[Original Publication: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995]

Konfidenz. The title sounds German, the author’s name vaguely German as well, yet neither novel nor writer are. Ariel Dorfman is a Chilean writer living and teaching in the US. He is most famous for the play “Death and the Maiden” which was turned into a movie by no less a genius than Roman Polanski. Konfidenz is his 4th novel, published in 1995, written in English. And it’s strange, strange. I have read it once all the way through (well, it’s a short novel) and reread several portions of it, and I still fell unable to decide whether it’s a great or horrible novel. The writing is usually a good sign, but not here. I’ll return to why this is the case.

At the center of the novel is a telephone conversation between a woman in a Paris hotel room and an unknown man who watches her from across the street, unbeknownst to her. It starts off as a thriller, along the lines of a ‘cat-and-mouse’ game. The reader is never apprised of the solution to what appears to be a riddle. During the conversation details are revealed, by and by. We learn who the woman is and get told who the man is and whence he knows her. Apparently he is a forger, lending his services to a clandestine organization, writing fake letters, constructing alibies, like these new agencies constructing an alibis for cheaters. The last person’s alibi he constructed and buttressed by forged letters was the unknown woman’s husband’s. This means he knows all sorts of details, enough to warrant saying that he knows her.

This may sound pretty straightforward with a plot we’re used to from many other genre texts. It’s written in a plain language, unadorned to the point of becoming repetitive. These are not rhythmical repetitions or anything, they rather read like repetitions borne from a severely limited vocabulary. The language is functional, not the least musical and, as I said, very repetitive. The novel is ‘saved’ by several intriguing inserts, reminiscent of Paul Auster (who is a similarly ungifted stylist), with two men watching each other, One of them is the one having the telephone conversation, the other one is just spying on him. Clearly he knows his subject well. Is he from the resistance movement, too? Has he been at this long? He never undertakes action, and later, when his actions are required, he recuses himself from that responsibility.

Still, even with these inserts, the first half of the novel appears to be pretty simple, promising genre appropriate surprises or something along these lines. The reader is kept guessing. Who watches whom, what’s up with the woman and is something wrong with her husband? And then the novel just implodes. The french police breaks up the conversation, and grueling police questionings ensue. In a way this accelerates the process of revelation as explanations follow upon explanations. Now, however, the crux: they are contradicting each other. The conversation itself was already replete with non-sequiturs, and odd ideas and coincidents. Now we are up against completely different versions of the truth and we, the reader come to agree with a character who says:

You know – I couldn’t care less if you’re telling the truth or of this is all just a gigantic tall tale.

Or several tall tales. And the further the story progresses the more the reader seconds another character’s thought:

It’s useless … there’s nothing you can do. Nothing you can do, that is, but ask why.

Why all these stories? Why the confusion? The why is not to be found in the stories themselves. This is not a detective novel – remember McHale’s explication of the modern/postmodern divide? – the genre elements are a red herring. The key is found in the settings, 1930s France and a concentration camp. The Shoah is not an easy tale to tell, as we have known for quite a while. It’s not just Felman’s “crises of witnessing”, I’d say Dorfman’s novel takes its consequences from Levi’s “here there is no why” and what McHale correctly analyzed as a shift in literary sensibilities.

The detective caper and traditional narrative logic is at odds with what needs to be told. A synonym of the title is ‘trust’ and Konfidenz‘s suggestion is that maybe we should not put our trust in the usual, conventional stories. The forger protagonist, after all, constructed fake stories intended to fool close relatives, people who are hard to fool. The success of his forgery depended, yes, on his skill as an imitator of a person’s handwriting and writing style, but at least to an equal extent on the fact that people do not mistrust letters written by their husbands and wives. Letters as genres are allotted a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. There are things you do not expect from letters from people you know. Same goes for detective stories. The title just emphasizes the distrust towards conventional stories Dorfman says is needed.

Needed not just because of a general linguistic fraudulence we are beset by as a culture and as members of a society, but because the Shoah clearly showed us the limits of our old ways to tell a story. Writers like Semprun demonstrated how fragile ‘truth’ in this context can be, and that you may be well advised to approach this truth from several ‘untruths’ first. Truth may turn out to be the dark hole in the middle of the web of storytelling. Telling the truth in a straightforward manner may distort it, hide it behind the intricate folds of convention or fancy language (hence, maybe, the bare-bones language in the novel). Konfidenz is another novel that shows how to circumvent this, how to repair storytelling, how to restore its power. A power that’s needed in order to learn from the past so that what happened once will never, never happen again.

"Senile Selbstbefriedigung": Kertész über Kunst

Der wunderbare Imre Kertész:

Wäre es das, was die Literaten “Begabung” nennen? Ich glaube kaum. Mit keiner meiner Taten, Worte, Äußerungen habe ich je ein Zeichen irgendeiner Begabung oder Originalität gegeben – allenfalls damit, daß ich am Leben blieb. Ich habe mich nicht in erfundene Geschichten hineingeträumt; ich mußte nicht einmal etwas mit dem anzufangen, was mir widerfuhr. Die erlösende Stimme der Berufung drank kein einziges Mal an mein Ohr, die Summe meiner Erfahrungen konnte nur meine Überflüssigkeit bestätigen, nie meine Wichtigkeit. Das erlösende Wort war mir nicht zu eigen; Vollkommenheit hat mich nicht interessiert, und auch nicht Schönheit, von der ich nicht einmal weiß, was das ist. Den Gedanken an Ruhm halte ich für senile Selbstbefriedigung, den an Unsterblichkeit einfach für lächerlich.

– Imre Kertész, Fiasko (trans. György Buda)

Pope Benedikt XVI has a field day

*sigh* This Pope should get a Nazi medal or something. In the Post’s On Faith columns

But in condemning Nazi antisemitism before that Jewish congregation in Cologne, Pope Benedict defined it univocally as having been “born of neo-paganism.” That was true, a reference to the odd mysticism that underwrote the Teutonic myths on which claims for Aryan racial superiority rested. But Nazi hatred of Jews was born of two parents, and the other one – the long history of Christian anti-Judaism – the pope did not mention. This was not a slight omission. It is urgently important, in going forward into the 21st century, that the context out of which the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people grew, and within which it nearly succeeded, not be forgotten. The crimes of Hitler were not the crimes of Christianity, but the Final Solution depended, both for the recruitment of active perpetrators and for the passivity of a continent’s worth of bystanders, on the ingrained anti-Jewishness of Christian theology, liturgy, and tradition. You would not know that from what the pope said in the Synagogue in Cologne. […]

Benedict went to Auschwitz, he said, “as a son of the German people, a son of that people over which a ring of criminals rose to power by false promises of future greatness and the recovery of the nation’s honor, prominence and prosperity, but also through terror and intimidation.” In Germany itself by now, there is an established tradition of a much fuller recognition of national complicity in the Nazi project. For a generation, Germans have declined to portray themselves as mere victims and dupes, and German church leaders in particular have been forthright in confessing their sin in relation to the Holocaust. In his portrayal of the past, both at Cologne and Auschwitz, Benedict is becoming a German apart.

And as a Christian? Here is how he defined the Nazi aim in murdering Jews: “Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people…by destroying Israel, they ultimately wanted to tear up the tap root of the Christian faith.” As if to dramatize this astounding claim that the “ultimate” Nazi target at Auschwitz was the Church, Benedict greeted 32 camp survivors, all but one of whom were Polish Catholics. A lone Jew represented the more than one million Jews who died there. With no apparent embarrassment, the pope prayed, “Why, Lord, did you remain silent?”

[…] the dark legacy of Christian antisemitism began to be redeemed when the Second Vatican Council both repudiated the “Christ-killer” charge against the Jewish people, and affirmed the on-going validity of Jewish religion. The days of scapegoating Jews, and seeking their conversion are over. Or are they? When Pope Benedict meets with Jewish leaders in New York this week, the cordial greetings will be heartfelt, but so will an undercurrent of wondering. Why, under his authority, has the Vatican recently restored the pre-Vatican II Good Friday prayers for the conversion of Jews? Does this pontificate represent a retreat from Christian moral reckoning with the Holocaust? Does it intend to restore the lethal Christian conviction that God’s only plan for Jews is baptism?

Here is the complete English transcript.

Und hier ist die deutsche Version seiner Rede.

Catholic Conversion

More on the Pope’s outrageous behavior. Susan Jacoby wrote last week

Benedikt has taken less trouble […] to conceal his dedication to a theology that regards other religions (not to mention secularism) as inferior. The pope’s personal baptism, at a widely publicized Easter vigil service, of an Egyptian-born Muslim, Magdi Allam […] is a case in point. Allam, in a column discussing his conversion, wrote in his newspaper that the “root of all evil is innate in an Islam that is physiologically violent and historically conflictual.” […]

Allam, who once attended a Catholic school in Egypt, is persona non grata not only to most Muslims but to a great many secular Italians, who tend to view his conversion as an exemplary “out of the frying pan, into the fire” move. […]

Does anyone seriously think that the Vatican finances mission schools around the world because it does not hope to gain converts? In this regard, it should be noted, the Catholic Church does not differ from other proselytizing Christian churches that offer a wide variety of social services along with a strong dose of religious indoctrination. […]

The Catholic emphasis on conversion has remained remarkably consistent throughout history. Pope John Paul II’s canonization of the Carmelite nun Edith Stein, a German Catholic convert from Judaism who died in Auschwitz, is a prime example. Stein was sent to Auschwitz for one reason: she was born a Jew, and for the Nazis, no religious conversion wiped out the “racial” stain of Jewishness. Yet the church considers her a Catholic martyr–a position as offensive to many Jews, and as impervious to the fact of who was targeted for extermination during the Holocaust–as some of Benedict’s statements about Islam have been to many Muslims. Stein was murdered by the Nazis because of her Jewish “blood,” not her Catholic faith.

Of course, Benedict can get away with offending Muslims more easily at the moment than he can with offending Jews. Much of post-Christian, secular Europe is terrified of the Muslim immigrants in its midst and would probably love to see a population of Muslim converts to Catholicism.

Faking Memory

This, well, something similar, anyway, has been a topic on this blog before (here and here) Today the NYTimes Online writes this

A best-selling Holocaust memoir has been revealed to be a fake. The author was never trapped in the Warsaw ghetto. Neither was she adopted by wolves who protected her from the Nazis, nor did she trek 1,900 miles across Europe in search of her deported parents or kill a German soldier in self-defense. She wasn’t even Jewish, The Associated Press reported. Misha Defonseca, 71, right, a Belgian writer living in Dudley, Mass., about 60 miles southwest of Boston, admitted through her lawyers last week that her book, “Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years,” translated into 18 language and adapted for the French feature film “Surviving With Wolves,” was a fantasy. In a statement to The Associated Press, Ms. Defonseca said: “The story is mine. It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving. I ask forgiveness to all who felt betrayed. I beg you to put yourself in my place, of a 4-year-old girl who was very lost.” Ms. Defonseca, who gave her real name as Monique De Wael, said her parents were arrested and killed by Nazis for Belgian resistance activities when she was 4; she was cared for by her grandfather and uncle. She came under pressure to defend her book after Sharon Sergeant, a genealogical researcher in Waltham, Mass., said she had found clues in the unpublished United States version of the book.