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The Yale Journal of Criticism 14.1 (2001) 115-154

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The Testimony of Fantasy in Georges Perec's W ou le souvenir d'enfance

Joanna Spiro

As the Second World War recedes in time, few and then none will be able to speak of Holocaust events from direct experience. The imperative never to forget will have to come to terms with the inevitability of some form of indirect representation. The children of Holocaust victims and survivors have the most at stake over the inaccessibility of Holocaust experience for those who were not there. When the parents have survived, they are often reluctant or unable to speak to their children about what they saw and endured during the war years. When the parents were killed in the war, their experiences remain forever beyond the reach of their surviving children, but knowing what happened to them is no less crucial to those children for its impossibility. It is out of such a predicament that Georges Perec writes his peculiar autobiography, W ou le souvenir d'enfance (W or the Memory of Childhood). Perec lost both his parents, Jews from Poland living in France, in the war years when he was still a young child. His father was killed as a soldier when Perec was four; his mother was arrested as a Jew and deported, probably to Auschwitz, when Perec was six. 1

She never returned, and her son never learned the details of her death. In 1947 the French government certified her "disappeared." 2 Perec survived the war hidden in a convent school, and after the war went to live with the family of his paternal aunt. In W, Perec attempts an autobiographical account of the wartime years. He supplements his scarce memories of the period by presenting the reconstruction of a fantasy from his adolescence. The memoir is an unsatisfying document in which Perec emphasizes the insufficiencies, contradictions, and improbabilities of his narrative, as well as the laboriousness of assembling it. The fantasy narrative, interwoven by chapters with the memoir, is even more discomfiting. Perec describes it as "la reconstitution, arbitraire mais minutieuse, d'un fantasme enfantin . . ." ("an arbitrary but careful reconstruction of a childhood fantasy")--a fantasy which Perec, in adulthood, suddenly remembered having had as an adolescent, around the age of 12 or 13. 3 About the fantasy, Perec claims also to remember very little: [End Page 115]

. . . je n'avais pratiquement aucun souvenir de W. Tout ce que j'en savais tient en moins de deux lignes: la vie d'une société exclusivement préoccupée de sport, sur un îlot de la Terre de Feu. (14)

(. . . I had practically no memory of W. All I knew of it came to a couple of lines: it was about the life of a community concerned exclusively with sport, on a tiny island off Tierra del Fuego. [6-7])

The "roman d'aventures" ("adventure story") begins with the story of a man, living under a false identity, who undertakes a voyage in search of a lost, mute boy who shares his name. 4 After a break, it continues disjunctively with a description, presented as a pseudo-ethnology, of an island called W inhabited by a society devoted to incessant sports competitions. In the last lines of this increasingly disturbing account of a society that is ruled with a complacent sadism, Perec makes explicit the connection between the W society and the concentration camps. W has been gradually revealed to be a "machine énorme" ("huge machine") for the "anéantissement systematique des hommes" ("systematic annihilation of men") (218, 161). 5

Perec's memoir sets itself apart from other accounts of Holocaust events in its emphasis on the scarcity and unreliability of his memories and in its use of fantasy. With these two elements Perec provocatively differentiates W from testimonies of both the survivors of the Nazi death camps and the children of the survivors (the "second generation"). Primo Levi, for instance, sees his imperative to testify as a survivor as following from the...


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