Thursday, May 13, 2004

Sophie's Choice

We once spent a whole long warm summer in a cottage on an island near the sea. The children were still small. We did two kinds of activities on alternating days. One day we would strap the children to our bicycles and tour part of the island; the other day we would go to the beach or stay on the large wooded property.
In the evening we would sit across from each other, wrapped up in a book. The owners had two bookcases full of leftover books. Books that nobody had wanted, or had room for, and that had ended up in a summerhouse by the sea.
It was a wonderful library. We devoured Dickens and Michener, Naipaul, Kafka and Selma Lagerlöf. We gobbled up Agatha Christie and Barbara Cartland.
That is how I came to read William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. I was shocked and disgusted by it. I was shocked, not by the subject, which was horrifying. I was shocked by Styron’s treatment of it: he had stolen a gruesome period in the history of the twentieth century and turned it into a sensational story. And it had worked! He had gotten away with it!
I couldn’t find people who agreed with me. Criticizing fiction about the holocaust is tricky business. It is haloed with an aura of respect. And that is how it should be. What do we, outsiders, really know about that history? But I believe that authors should be bound by that same respect, and to me Styron had violated that.
The proponents argued that it was a horrible choice that that woman was faced with.
Exactly! That is what is remembered: a mother’s choice between one child and another. And all the rest is pushed to the background. That choice is presented as the epitome of that woman’s suffering.
Cheap and low, that is what I call it. This is not a book about the horrors of the holocaust. This is a book about one small sensational occurrence during the holocaust. The holocaust alone was not sensational enough for Styron, he needed an additional heart-rending human dimension.
I have come to realize that it is not true that all human suffering has already been turned into good literature. There is so much grief that has still not been recognized, that has been swept under the carpet.
In this May month of remembrance there are again a number of documentaries on television, and frankly I am aghast at the bizarre stories about the Second World War that keep emerging. Stranger and more human than Styron’s cheap shot. Like the one about the many parents who were faced with the choice of taking their children with them to the annihilation camps or to leave them behind as orphans in the uncertain care of “good” people.
There is a choice for Styron! Stripping stories to the bare essentials makes them much more gripping.
Another history that was documented and shown on TV was about a five-year-old orphaned Jewish boy, who was adopted by a collaborating family who dressed him up in an SS uniform. He was sent to a Nazi health camp of which they showed picture footage, with the boy running around and playing. He never saw his own family again. Recently he applied for compensation as a war victim, but it was denied him on the grounds that he had joined the SS! Turning such a story into fiction would be addressing the dilemma of good and bad in wartime.
All the stories that were shown on TV had elements of that absurd carelessness and barbarity of man, reminiscent of The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinsky, which is largely autobiographical.

It proves my point: there is far more cruel ambiguity in true stories than in fictional ones.

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