“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” Theodor Adorno wrote, thereby contradicting himself. The celebrated epigram is itself a form of poetry, of course; and written not simply after Auschwitz, but about it.
It is a large contradiction. It has haunted the art inspired by the Holocaust and fueled a perennial debate about such art. The late Primo Levi, to take one example, was criticized for suggesting that the human spirit flared in the death camps, against the odds. “Trivializing the horror” is the essence of the charge brought against his and other literary explorations.
Is there something grotesque in writing beautifully about this ultimate horror? Levi was not concerned with beauty but with truth. Only, as a scientist, he was accustomed to seeking truth in the harmonies of form and process; in the symmetry of a crystal, for example.
Others have found it necessary to imprint an antithetical harshness, an unaesthetic excess on their forms and images. It is a kind of deliberate self-denial; an element of punishment seeded into the work to counter the unbearable notion of profiting, even artistically, from awfulness. One could consider the length of the film “Shoah,” for instance, as not simply the time needed to tell a story, but as an incarceration meant to bring us closer to the imprisonment of the human spirit among Poles who remained indifferent to what was going on in their midst.
David Grossman, a gifted young Israeli novelist, has found some startling new light in his massive and complex novel about the Holocaust. He has tacked up a dazzling circuitry between nightmare and hope.
“See Under: Love” possesses moments of hair-raising beauty and discovery. They are knotted into forms and styles that sometimes obscure them and leave them accessible only at a price. We struggle to get through; in that struggle, we are exercised, illuminated, and perhaps resentful at the same time.
“See Under: Love” is divided into four sections, each written in a drastically different style. In the first, Momik, a frail and gifted child, lives with his parents in Israel and tries to explain to himself the nature of the terrible events that have left his family and their friends broken and fearful, and with tattooed numbers on their arms.
Momik’s childhood is narrated in a thick, rich patois that, in translation, comes across as Yiddish-inflected English. It is the speech that Momik’s Polish-born parents have taught him, drawn out into a child’s associative stream of consciousness that can run a single sentence for two pages.
It can be heavy going, but the story is astonishing and infinitely touching. Nobody wants to tell Momik about the past. Using his imagination, the scraps of information and misinformation he picks up, the children’s adventures he reads, he constructs his own theory about the “Nazi Beast.”
It lives in his cellar, he decides, invisibly. It is up to him, Momik, “to find the Nazi Beast and tame it and make it good and persuade it to change its ways.” It is a battle he pursues, using all kinds of childish means, on behalf of his parents. “He’s fighting like a partisan. Undercover. All alone. So that finally they’ll be able to forget and relax a little, and stop being so scared for once in their lives.”
Momik will have a breakdown. In the second section of the book he reappears, grown up and a writer. He is on the same quest but now he takes a byway. He comes to Gdansk, on the Baltic Sea, to pursue the ghost of Bruno Schulz, a Polish writer killed by the Nazis.
He stands on the shore and engages in a dialogue with the sea. It tells him of Schulz being adopted by a giant school of salmon, conducted through various piscine adventures and transformations, and finally becoming a fish himself. The language is surreal and lush; the fantasy churns along with great energy and dim purpose. The sea talks; the sea is a bore.
After this watery detour, things pick up. Momik now uses everything he has ever known--his childhood, his wanderings, his studies--to pursue his Nazi Beast quest in still another form. Now, as a mature artist, he will devise a fable that will indeed tame it, if not exactly make it nice.
The fable tells of Anshel Wasserman, Momik’s great-uncle and author of a vastly successful prewar series of children’s adventure stories. Anshel is thrown into a death camp, but after a while the guards bring him before Neigel, the camp commandant. Neigel’s men have tried to kill Anshel three times--by shooting, gas and a truck--but he doesn’t die. Anshel is apologetic; it is some kind of disorder, he explains; perhaps a doctor should be called.
Neigel is the emotionless bureaucrat-butcher. Anshel’s problem infuriates him, but it intrigues him too. He is further intrigued to learn that the prisoner is the author of the adventure series he used to read as a child.
Accordingly, Neigel proposes that Anshel shall live in Neigel’s attic, work his garden and, like Scheherazade, tell him a story each night. Anshel objects that, far from wanting to live, he wants to die. They agree that after each story, Neigel will shoot him. It will do no good, of course, since Anshel is unable to die.
The story he tells is a strange updating of his old children’s adventures. Those were about a band of super-kids, of various races and nationalities, who traveled around the world doing good and righting wrongs. The band called itself The Children of the Heart.
In Anshel’s nightly telling, the Children have grown old and formed an underground community in the Warsaw zoo. There they raise Kazik, a doomed and miraculous child who lives an entire life, up to age 65, in the space of 22 hours and 20 minutes.
Anshel gradually gains an ascendancy over the Nazi boss by means of his extended story. A chaotic human sensibility begins to awaken in this inhuman figure. And Grossman shifts into a new narrative device in the form of entries in an encyclopedia. It is a post-modern usage, intended to deconstruct the proprietorial narrator. It is briefly irritating, but Grossman has too much to tell for it to matter one way or the other for very long.
The breaking down of Neigel, who tries to bully the story his way, only to submit each time to Anshel’s artistic dictatorship, the portrait of Anshel himself, with his artist’s vanity and his redemptive mission, and the marvelously varied stories within Anshel’s narrative, are an imaginative bonfire that light up the book’s final sections.
Sometimes the fire smokes. The reader will not be transported; he must bring his own boots and use them. The book’s oddly radiant theme must be worked for; the author contorts himself to earn the right to speak plainly.
The characters in Anshel’s story--the saintly Children of the Heart, now in their 70s and conducting a kind of anti-Nazi resistance; Kazik with his tragic and instant life and death--all these gradually take Neigel over. He will kill himself, but before he does, he begs to be allowed to create a fictional character of his own to join the Children.
Anshel has his characters argue the point. Albert, one of the children, finds Neigel’s fictional personage “too raw.” But Otto, the leader, says that he must be allowed in.
“Even when we seek the greatest and most humanitarian motives, Albert, we must never for a single moment forget to have mercy because otherwise we’re no better than they are, may their names be blotted out.”
A blessing and a curse in the same sentence. Neigel, the butcher, hangs in the extraordinary eschatological half-light that Grossman has come upon. Even for the damned there can be mercy. In the context of the Holocaust, this is an astonishing, perhaps a scandalous, and certainly an extraordinary and valiant message.