Sunday, 5 February 2017

w, or the memory of childhood, [georges perec]

Perec’s novel includes a whole section is apparently set on an island in Tierra del Fuego, visited last year, which is what lead me to it. I didn’t realise that it’s also another novel to add to the cannon on the Holocaust. Perec adopts a subversive, lateral approach to the subject. The novel describes an island where the narrator’s namesake has perhaps ended up after being shipwrecked in the South Atlantic ocean. The island is a paean to sport, with rituals dedicated to an annual athletic event which is an echo of the (modern and ancient) Olympic games. As the author describes the island in more and more detail, it becomes increasingly nightmarish. What at first seems like healthy competition eventually proves to be a desperate battle for survival in the face of an exterminatory system. At the very end of the novel, the link between the island and the concentration camps is made explicit. There’s something remarkable about the way in which Perec posits links between a society constructed around the banality of sport, and the historical reality of the Holocaust. Our continued glorification of sport as an antidote to politics or political action gives the book an ongoing prescience. W is a brief novel, which includes alternating chapters that offer a potted version of the author’s childhood, revealing how he managed to evade the Nazis, even though his mother didn’t. She died in the camps. The arm’s-length tone of the book’s description of the island masks the author’s personal stake in the terrible history W recounts. The book’s brevity gives it an added power, as the novel traces its metaphor towards a  terrible, seemingly logical end. 

No comments: