- Narrating the Holocaust
Over the past thirty years, countless books have been written on the subject of Holocaust literature. Most of these have focused on fictional works (novels, short stories, poems, plays), some on autobiographical writing (memoirs, journals, diaries, etc.), some on both. The difficulties of generic definition are omnipresent in these works. How much do works that represent camp experience explicitly, like Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl and Tadeusz Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman, have in common with those that do so allegorically, like Aharon Appelfeld's Badenheim 1939, or obliquely, like Martin Amis's Time's Arrow? Should works that concern themselves with the Nazi regime but not with the camps per se, such as Marcie Hershman's Tales of the Master Race and Emily Prager's Eve's Tattoo, be classified as Holocaust literature? What about the poetry of Sylvia Plath or Tony Harrison, in which metaphors drawn from the Holocaust become key tropes? Or a novella such as George Steiner's The Portage to San Crisotobal of A.H., which imagines the pursuit and eventual apprehension of Hitler in South America after the war? Furthermore, there is the thorny issue of the relationship between fiction and autobiography, and between fictionalized autobiography and autobiographical fiction. Some authors who are also survivors, such as Primo Levi and Eli Wiesel, have written fictional and autobiographical works dealing with their experiences as camp inmates. There are also hybrid works that combine and conflate different genres. Art Spiegelman's Maus, for example, is a biography of Spiegelman's father, Vladek, who experienced Auschwitz. It is also an autobiography, in which Spiegelman deals with the ethical and aesthetic dilemmas posed by the writing of the book, and in the second volume, by the commercial and critical success of the first volume. Finally, it is an allegory, in [End Page 751] which Jews are depicted with the heads of mice, Germans with the heads of cats, and Poles with the heads of pigs.
In Narrating the Holocaust, Andrea Reiter breaks new ground in two ways. First, she focuses on a wide range of testimonies written by survivors, most of which have not been available to a general, English-speaking audience, and which would not be conventionally classified as "literature" of any sort, and subjects them to literary analysis, rather than dealing with them as historical documents. Second, she classifies these works systematically according to the different "linguistic devices" and generic strategies that they employ (2). Her opening chapter, "Communication," is concerned with the ordering and selection of material in these texts, and identifies "four especially dramatic events: arrival, release, death and torture" as the staple ingredients of survivors' testimonies (20). In her second chapter, "Genre," Reiter discusses the influence of two very different generic categories—the Hasidic tale and the travel report—on these texts. The third chapter of the book, "Coming to terms with experience through language," discusses some of the rhetorical tropes and recurring metaphors that these texts employ. In the fourth chapter, "The narrative of lived reality," Reiter concentrates on the struggle of camp authors to find literary forms that could accommodate and articulate experiences unprecedented not only in their own lives but anywhere in recorded history, and on the therapeutic importance of storytelling in the camps. In the final chapter, "Text and meaning: from experience to report," Reiter explores the motivations of the authors of these texts; this chapter is the least original section of the book, tending to retread familiar ground. Finally, the epilogue on the representation of the Holocaust through the eyes of children seems more like a prologue to a new project than a conclusion to this book.
There are three problems with the book, all of them consequences of the circumstances of its publication. First of all, Patrick Camiller's translation from the German, though generally lucid, is at times rather awkward—for instance, "[t]he discussion of genre has already brought out the weak impetus to originality" (85)—and because Reiter deals almost exclusively...