A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction

There was never one single Schindler's list and the real Itzhak Stern bore little resemblance to the character in Steven Spielberg's film. The English translation of Elie Wiesel's Night is very different from the sprawling Yiddish original. And the scene in Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird where the central character is thrown into a pit of steaming excrement by furious peasants never took place.

Holocaust fiction is the most troubling of genres. Nowhere is the borderline between truth and fiction more hazy, and yet nowhere else in literature is the demand for truth more intense. To distort the Holocaust in a work of testimony or literature is considered a form of sacrilege, blasphemy almost. And yet, again and again, writers have invented their past, made up whole scenes, blurred the boundaries between testimony and literature. Binjamin Wilkomir­ski's Fragments was a fabrication. Even Wiesel and Primo Levi made substantial changes to their initial accounts of their experiences at Auschwitz, making their testimony less Jewish and more "universal", and therefore more easily accessible to a general reading public.

Ruth Franklin is a thoughtful guide to the problem of "lies and truth in Holocaust fiction". Over the past ten years, her reviews for the New Republic have established her as one of the best critics of her generation. She has written many long essays on Holocaust fiction, and A Thousand Darknesses pulls together several that explore this particular minefield. She has read widely in the literature and has a good eye for detail. Franklin also has very sound judgement. She calls Nathan Englander's short story "The Tumblers" "the most brilliant treatment of the Holocaust in contemporary American fiction". And she has denounced the "intellectual and moral confusion" in Bernhard Schlink's The Reader and Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones.

Perhaps the best chapter, about Tadeusz Bor­owski, not only gives insight into his collection of stories This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen but also contrasts the distinctive narrative style in these tales with the very different voice that emerges from his recently translated letters. Franklin offers the best short introduction to Borowski's life and work. It spans the stories in We Were in Auschwitz, an account written by Borowski and two other Polish survivors of the concentration camps that was published in Munich in 1946, Czeslaw Milosz's savage portrayal of Borowski ("Beta, the Disappointed Lover" in The Captive Mind), and Borowski's subsequent career and suicide. This is Franklin at her best, trying to disentangle two literary voices: in the fiction caustic and dark, and in the letters gentler, more humane. Which, she asks, is the true Borowski? Which account of Auschwitz is the more reliable?

Questions of this kind run through the essays that follow. Where do memory and testimony blur into fiction? Primo Levi claimed that his first loyalty was to the truth; so, how much does it matter that recent biographies have shown that he changed the record, left things out and disguised other facts? It is known that "Levi removed several Jewish allusions [from his memoir If This Is a Man] to give the text a more universal appeal".

Does this make it less true? Does it undermine "its essentially testimonial character"? If the changes make it less true, does that make it untrue?
Franklin is in no hurry to pass judgment. She is judicious and attentive to the complexity of the difficulties. However, there are problems with her account. First, there are the factual errors. She writes that Ka-Tzetnik 135633's Sunrise Over Hell was "published in Israel in 1946". The state of Israel was formed in 1948. Writing about the publication history of This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, she omits the first English translation in 1967. She writes of Nazi round-ups reaching eastern Poland in "March 1941", three months before the Germans invaded this Soviet-occupied area of the country. On the next page, she describes the Lodz ghetto as the largest in Europe. It was half the size of the Warsaw ghetto. In a study of the borders between truth and untruth, such errors do not help.

There is also a problem with the format. Republishing a set of essays is fine. Some of the very best books of criticism have done just that. The problem is that some big questions fall into the gaps. Many of the books she discusses are by survivors of Auschwitz. How representative are such accounts of the Holocaust, when, as we know, so many Jews never went near what we would call a concentration camp?

What's more, several of the works that the author cites appeared immediately after the Second World War, but did not reach western Europe and North America until a decade or so later. What does this delayed transmission tell us? Too often, Franklin fails to address larger issues in Holocaust criticism. Historians are rethinking the destruction of the European Jews in fresh and engaging ways. Literary and cultural critics still lag behind. l

Read more by David Herman for the NS at: newstatesman.com/writers/david_herman

A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction
Ruth Franklin
Oxford University Press, 304pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Toppling the tyrants