In writerly circles, there’s a lot of emphasis these days on the old narrative chestnut of show vs. tell, with conventional wisdom declaring that show is good whereas tell is not. I confess this rather annoys me, as both show and tell are necessary in books because they do different things. Telling is appropriate for the moments that do not pass in human interaction, and it is essential for the invisible and intangible parts of life, most obviously those that are psychological. Telling is necessary for fantasy, recollection, testimony, analysis, philosophy, contemplation, reflection, and of course description. Without them, you have the kind of book that is highly prevalent at the moment – the social, action-based story. What, though, of the book that is based on telling? Several of the books I’ve read this week have been oriented towards telling and they express the child’s eye view, the perspective of the obsessive loner, the evocation of the past or future, the acts of creative imagination. And this book, Fabrice Humbert’s The Origin of Violence, focuses on third generation testimony of the Holocaust, by means of the quest of a grandchild to understand the problems in his family by finding out what happened to his grandfather in Buchenwald.
Now, I said to myself I would not get caught up with any more Holocaust narratives. I find them very difficult to read, and having taught them for a while, feel I have done my bit. But this novel had such an intriguing premise (and also won the French Orange Prize) that I had to give it a go. The story begins with the young man, (our narrator) a teacher on a school trip to the old site of the concentration camp in Weimar, noticing a photograph taken in 1941 of a prisoner whose resemblance to his own father is striking. The photograph haunts him. His father is an aloof man, who shuns the gatherings of their large, bourgeois clan and evades personal questions. Our narrator feels a kind of darkness inside him for which he cannot account, other than to understand it as a phantom legacy, a passing down of unspoken, untestified violence from previous generations. He starts to investigate the photograph and finds that the man in the photo is called David Wagner and that he was on the receiving end of the malicious behaviour of the camp doctor, dying in 1942. And then it isn’t long before he finds out that David Wagner’s story is intimately linked to his own family.
The first half of this book is pretty amazing. Fabrice Humbert writes the concentation camp scenes in a kind of cold, white fury, searing through the sheer awfulness with a tight, focussed narrative. Even though I don’t like Holocaust literature, this was the best part of the novel. As the revelations about the narrator’s family come thick and fast, gathering momentum until we reach the long, intense section in which the story of David Wagner’s imprisonment is told, the narrative is wholly compelling. After such a brilliant first half, the second was inevitably going to struggle to match up, but again I liked the premise. Armed with his inconvenient truths, the narrator returns to his life in the present, determined to tackle his father. But the new knowledge alters his perspective, and for a while he is obsessed with evil and violence, finding all around contemporary crimes and misdemeanours in which the fingerprints of Holocaust-like violence are visible. French literature has always had a close association with philosophy and again I found these sections to be brilliant. What doesn’t work so well is the new relationship he forges with a young German woman, whose grandfather was one of the Nazi generals. And although this has promise, as a storyline it fizzles out in the end, overtaken by the more significant drama of the narrator’s relationship to his family.
At the heart of the novel is a radical premise: that memory is for the dead, and forgetting is for the living; that we need to forget in order to live. Given that this is a story about memory, or if not memory, the necessity of fierce acts of imaginative recreation, there is an urgent paradox operating the various parts of the narrative. What should we do about the Holocaust at this historical distance, when its long shadow reaches down through subsequent generations and continues to inhabit the shameful things that man can do to man? Can we remember in our community, but forget as individuals who need to move forward with lightness and grace? This is a sensitive and penetrating novel, with outstanding moments and a courageous perspective. I will be very interested to read his second novel now.