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2 The Figure of Muteness Welches der Worte du sprichst du dankst dem Verderben. [Whichever word you speak you thank destruction.] -Paul Celan The desire to fix the facts of the Holocaust, for once and for all, grows more urgent as the event fades further and further into the past. While time erodes the remnants of brutality and extermination, survivors of Nazi genocide push against the limits of language and imagination to revisit-in mind or in body-the deathcamps that once constituted their nightmarish world. With eyewitnesses still among us willing to probe and share their memories, we struggle to see that landscape with some clarity of vision. But as grass and shrub reclaim the Nazi deathcamps, as a generation of war criminals and collaborators, heroes and survivors ages and dies, the Nazi program of genocide and atrocity still strains belief. Despite a mounting body of historical and fictional narrative, photographs and films, relics and statistics, paintings and monuments, the Holocaust defies our best efforts to knowdefies the survivor's best efforts to tell. When the narrator of Jorge Semprun's novel The Long Voyage leads a pair of French women through Buchenwald two days after liberation , he is a privileged witness. Unlike survivors who, in later years, 33 34 The Figure ofMuteness revisit deathcamps grown bucolic with the passage of time, Semprun's narrator feels no need for words and stories to evoke his experience. Both he and the camp bear physical evidence of the reign of atrocity that has just ended. He need not speak for he can point-or so he believes. In his first attempt to reveal to an outsider the "totally unnatural world of the prison of death" where the "unreal and the absurd became familiar" (69), Semprun's narrator conducts a private tour of Buchenwald for two "incredible girls" from the French Mission. The big square where they had held roll call was deserted beneath the spring sun, and I stopped, my heart beating. I had never seen it empty before, I must admit, I hadn't ever really seen it. I hadn't really seen it before, not what you call 'seeing.' ... I saw this scenery, which for two years had been the setting of my life, and I was seeing it for the first time. I was seeing it from the outside, as if this setting which had been my life until the day before yesterday was now on the other side of the mirror. (70) "But it really doesn't seem all that bad," one ofthem said just then. (71) [italics mine] Amid unburied corpses and gaunt survivors, the narrator quickly discovers that disclosure has already become impossible. The Buchenwald he experienced no longer exists. What remains of it scarcely ruffles the visitors. Two days after liberation, the Holocaust has already become history, no longer present, no longer accessible. The narrator's personal experience, too, has become history, and he cannot communicate it to anyone who has not shared it. Moreover, as that experience recedes in time, he finds that he himself must struggle to connect with it. Now a survivor rather than a victim, the narrator views Buchenwald with different eyes. Emptied of its terrible action, the deathcamp remains forbidding only in memory-a memory at odds with what he sees. The repetition of seeing and seen underscores the disparity between what was and what is. The "unreal"-normalized for him during his two year incarceration-has once again become unreal, unfamiliar. Expecting to shock the women-who had heard "that it was horrible, absolutely appalling" (70)-the narrator finds himself shocked, not by the horror but by its absence. While the narrator couples what he sees with what he remembers, the women mistake the little they see for the complete picture. Their complacency prompts the narrator to put forth a real effort to evoke for The Figure ofMuteness 35 them the world he remembers. If the empty square leaves them unimpressed , no matter. The narrator has at his disposal something more potent-more potent, too, than any story he could relate. I take the girls to the crematorium by the small door, the one leading directly to the cellar.... I show them the hooks from which the men were hung, for the crematorium also served as a torture chamber. I show them the blackjacks and the clubs, which are still there. I explain to them what they were used for. I show them the lifts which used to...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781438407074
Related ISBN
9780791431290
MARC Record
OCLC
42855116
Pages
276
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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