I would like to bring to your attention an essay by Timothy Garton Ash, who argues that although witnesses and memory are unreliable and objectivity is impossible, it is still important to respect “the frontier between the literature of fact and the literature of fiction” and to refuse to embellish reporting with telling details that didn’t actually happen. He makes the point that this respect, this determination to stick to what one knows to be real, makes itself felt in the prose itself; he contrasts Paul Theroux’s unconvincing claim that every word in The Great Railway Bazaar was written down at the time exactly as it happened with George Orwell’s more modest, and therefore more believable, insistence in Homage to Catalonia that the reader “beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact, and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events.” He also contrasts two books published as Holocaust memoirs:
Take a now notorious example: the book published in 1995 as Bruchstücke (in English, Fragments) by Binjamin Wilkomirski, which purported to be the memories of a man who survived the Nazi death camps as a Polish Jewish child. It is now established beyond reasonable doubt that the author was a Swiss musician of troubled past and disturbed mind, originally called Bruno Grosjean, who had never been near a Nazi death camp—but had imagined himself into that past, that other self. Reading Fragments now, one is amazed that it could ever have been hailed as it was. The wooden irony (“Majdanek is no playground”), the hackneyed images[...], the crude, hectoring melodrama [...]. Material which, once you know it is fraudulent, is truly obscene. But even before one knew that, all the aesthetic alarms should have sounded. For every page has the authentic ring of falsehood.
Compare this with the great books of true witness. Of course there are large variations in tone and style between these works. Many nonetheless have a certain voice in common: one of pained, sober, yet often ironical or even sarcastic veracity, which speaks from the very first line. Take, for example, and contrast with Wilkomirski, the first line of Levi’s If This Is a Man: “It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944, that is, after the German government had decided, owing to the growing scarcity of labour, to lengthen the average life-span of the prisoners destined for elimination; it conceded noticeable improvements in the camp routine and temporarily suspended killings at the whim of individuals.” How could we not believe this?
I have to admit that the impulse to make a Languagehat entry of the essay arose from an utterly trivial source, the irritation I experienced as a result of the following passage:
“You who harmed an ordinary man . . .” writes Czeslaw Milosz, in one of his most famous poems, “do not feel safe. The poet remembers./You may kill him—another will be born./Deeds and words shall be recorded.” The poet remembers: Poeta pami, eta !
I was happy to see a bit of what I presumed was the original Polish quoted, but what was that “eta”? Some kind of Polish exclamation parallel to Greek opa? I don’t know the language, so it took a while before I realized that it was not a separate word at all but part of the verb pamieta ‘remembers’—except that the e should have an ogonek (like a right-pointing cedilla) underneath (making it nasal, so that the word is pronounced “pamyenta”), and there appears to be no way to achieve this either in HTML or in the online Guardian. I don’t know how it wound up as a comma followed by an e, but surely someone at the paper might have noticed; of course, what they could have done about it is another question. It is presumably beyond the ambit of a Guardian copyeditor to know the details of Polish orthography and to realize that it would make more sense to print a simple e. I blame Ash, who’s been in the business a long time and should know that asking a newspaper to reproduce a Polish nasal vowel is a losing proposition. [Via You Got Style.]
Incidentally, there is an interesting parallel to Ash’s comparison of Wilkomirski and Levy in Matt Zoller Seitz’s review of the new movie The Pianist, which he compares favorably to both Schindler’s List and (especially) Max; he says:
While the director crafts some moments of nearly unbearable suspense and dares to see the humor in Szpilman’s plight, there’s nothing cheap, hustling or fashionable about this movie. It’s done in a rigorously classical style that inattentive Polanski fans might mistakenly deem “conventional.” They shouldn’t. Polanski is a Polish Jew and longtime U.S. exile whose mother was killed at Auschwitz and whose wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family. The Pianist’s precise, even meticulous approach suggests a deep respect for the brutalizing power of violence that can only have come from personal experience.