The Responsibility of Holocaust Literature

Ruth Franklin: A Thousand Darknesses – Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction

Hopefully there are hardly any people in the world who would not look deeply into one’s soul when thinking of the Holocaust, raising at least one of these questions: How could all these happen? What could make humans torture and kill other humans on account of their race or sexual orientation? How could the rest of the world watch it, remaining silent for such a long time, instead of intervening in the course of events before all these destructions could have been perpetrated? And while phrasing these painfully unanswerable questions, many others may also arise concerning the weight of responsibility that falls on the appropriate representation of the Holocaust. The awareness-raising role of demonstration bears crucial importance.

So much has been said about the Holocaust since the end of World War II that one may think there is not much more new to be written about it. Ruth Franklin’s book is one of the eloquent testimonies to the opposite of this. Franklin discusses many of the most significant works of Holocaust literature, taking great pains to investigate that unquestionable responsibility which representation has in educating and informing. The author takes, among many other things, as her guide, Elie Wiesel’s widely mentioned view that has seemed to determine the reception of every work published in connection with the Holocaust. According to Wiesel, only those who experienced the Holocaust by themselves can have true knowledge about it, only they have a right to write and speak about it, and only without any invention of events added to the truth. Any fictional account of the Holocaust is the violation of the past and “an insult to the dead”. (5.)

Ruth Franklin investigates this problem form several points of view while evaluating the distinctions between the standards of memoir and fiction. In the first part of the book, works of Holocaust survivors – Tadeusz Borowski, Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Piotr Rawicz, Jerzy Kosinsky, and Imre Kertész – are taken under close scrutiny. The general conclusion is that for creating a literary work, some inevitable distortion of facts has to take place, and drawing a sharp line between fiction and non-fiction is a mistake. Even in Wiesel’s novels there are contradictions in the stories here and there, many inventions can be grasped, which entitles them, to Wiesel’s strong dismay, to be called fictions. On the other hand, Imre Kertész has always resisted calling his book, Fatelessness, an autobiography, although his narrator is identical with his childhood self, so the book is a kind of testimony. In most cases the blurring of genres is unavoidable in Holocaust literature, and, as the title of the book also indicates, they are widely considered as fictions.

In the second part of the book, the reader is offered close analyses of diverse products from writers of the second generation of Holocaust survivors. The subject of the examination is the same: the stories’ validity on the one hand, and their literary value on the other. Through the fictions of Thomas Keneally/Steven Spielberg, Wolfgang Koeppen, W.G. Sebald, and Bernhard Schlink, Franklin emphasizes the vital role of imagination which is essential to shape human memory into a work of art. Like in the first part of the book, the author touches upon the doubts of many critics and survivors, as for how Holocaust and art, with its aestheticizing effects, can be mentioned in the same context at all. Through the analysis of the stories, Franklin takes the reader back to this determining event of human history and its aftermath.

Franklin’s conclusion is that, in whatever way they are described, the horror and dehumanizing effects of the Holocaust are unimaginable, impossible to comprehend and they will remain so. Nevertheless, speaking about it is our mutual concern and also an obligation towards those who were silenced forever. Doing so through the channels of imagination and art, however, is far from belittling the gravity of facts; rather it is a means of fostering understanding and feeling of empathy. It is the responsibility of the authors, however, to throw ropes to the reader as an aid in reading and interpreting. If it is not adequate to represent the Holocaust through art, and if it is a crime, as Wiesel suggests, to fictionalise this horror of human history, there is no a greater crime than remaining silent about it. Warning is essential, because,as Franklin quotes W.G. Sebald, “certain things […] have a way of returning unexpectedly, often after a lengthy absence”. (186.)

Franklin’s book is invaluable as it provides not only a fascinating insight into the story and reception of a variety of Holocaust fiction, but it also presents historical facts. The author’s writing style is clear and remarkably readable, therefore the book can attract a wide readership.  Its importance in education is priceless. A Thousand Darknesses has a special role in preventing the memory of this excruciatingly painful experience of human history from sinking into silence.

Ruth Franklin. A Thousand Darknesses – Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction. New York, Oxford University Press, Inc., 2011.  272 pages