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1 August 2011

Uncomfortable truths

How literature can challenge official histories.

By Androulla Harris

English-speakers now have a chance to read The Fat Years, a novel which has circulated underground in China – allegedly between millions of citizens – since it was published in Chinese in 2009. It is set in Beijing in 2013, where a collective amnesia has taken hold of society, the government’s official record casting the past month’s events into historical oblivion. A group of friends kidnap a high-ranking official and force him to speak honestly about the regime. Shocking revelations follow, which concern both the country’s leaders and its people.

When individual expression is constrained – by institutions or by a collective avoidance of uncomfortable truths – literature’s power to express ideas becomes more vital. Opposing an orthodox national history was a prominent goal of many European writers in the aftermath of the Second World War. A range of novels, memoirs and historical research explored how distinct private memory and public memory could be. Here are some of the most intriguing:

Death in Rome by Wolfgang Koeppen

Published in 1954 in West Germany, Death in Rome satirises the shying away from discussing the Nazi past in immediate postwar Germany. For example, the period 1933-45 only becoming a subject required in school from 1962.

This modernist novel follows a German family in Rome, who rarely talk to one another. The parents, Judejahn and Eva, are struggling to deal with the failure of their beloved Nazi ideals. Ex-Nazi official Judejahn continues to believe in his authoritative power and is incredulous that “no one was keeping a respectful distance” as he walks along a Roman street. By contrast, the children renounce their parents’ and Germany’s recent past, leaving them despondent about the future. For example, Siegfried sees human reproduction as a repulsive “warm primeval slime” that can only lead to a “false eternity…hunger, fear and war.” The different members’ streams of thought run into one another, making their differences more obvious.

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The family reunites just once in the novel, at a small gay bar. They choose to talk about the barmaid, a bland and one-dimensional character called Laura, rather than their shared past which they have agonisingly scrutinised throughout the novel.

The Joke by Milan Kundera

Published in Communist Czechoslovakia in 1967, Kundera’s novel shows how a self-proclaimed Socialist government could mercilessly destroy people’s lives and their sense of belonging. After cracking a joke about Marx, Ludvik is alienated from the Communist Party, his university and his local community. He often remembers the assembly hall- which included his closest friends- in which the party voted for his exclusion: “It’s hard to live with people willing to send you to exile or death, it’s hard to feel intimate with them.” Ludvik’s psychological breakdown manifests itself in an obsession with gaining vengeance, by having sex with the party boss’ wife.

The Joke also draws attention to divergent beliefs which can exist in a totalitarian society: Communist Party doctrine, Christianity and Czechoslovakian folk tradition.

Speak You Also by Paul Steinberg

Steinberg’s memoir of his experiences in Auschwitz was published in 1996, when there was greater public openness about the Holocaust in Germany. The memoir raises a question relevant to all survivors of trauma: how can you understand your own memories, let alone express them to others? In Steinberg’s view, the camp was a “parallel universe, the one where logic, ethics… are replaced by another logic, another ethics…which we must assimilate quickly.” Memories of life in the camp are broken up by “Digressions”, which discuss the emotionally strenuous process of writing. Steinberg even wonders whether his memoir will end up at the back of a cupboard in a shoebox before he finishes it.

The memoir helps to shed light on different experiences of concentration camp survivors, by being in dialogue with Primo Levi’s Is This A Man– first published in Italy in 1958. Levi and Steinberg met in the camp and Levi describes Steinberg as “the concentration-camp man”, or an individual who would degrade anyone in order to survive. Speak You Also is partly an attempt to oppose that portrayal.

“Memory and the Narrative of Rape in Budapest and Vienna in 1945” by Andrea Peto

In Budapest and Vienna there was widespread rape of female citizens by the occupying Soviet forces. Peto looks at how the Soviet regime conceptualised rape, and how its institutions prevented the issue from being properly addressed. Rape was viewed as a medical matter to avoid questions of morality, with public health officials only reporting a rape if it led to a biological difference- an STI or a foetus. Peto writes about the judicial system that favoured Soviet soldiers, which neglected the moral, psychological and emotional outcomes of rape.

One Woman in the War: Hungary 1944-1945 by Alaine Polcz

This memoir was published in Hungarian in 1991, after the end of Soviet control. It gives an intensely personal account of Polcz’s experience aged 19-20 in Soviet prisoner camps. Her almost eerily calm tone heightens its emotiveness; the reader wants to scream out against the trauma on Polcz’s behalf, for example, when Polcz cleans her wounds in the snow after repeated rape. She also writes about her unrequited love for her husband Janos, discredited religion and her friendship with her dog, who travels with her between the camps. Touching and shocking, this is a vivid and human account of wartime rape after decades of forced silence in the public arena.

The Fat Years is published by Doubleday (£12.99).