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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Have an enjoyable Holocaust trip

By Norman Lebrecht / November 21, 2005

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I met a man who takes people back. Neither necromancer nor psychoanalyst, he is a semi-retired chap from the North London suburbs who organises tours for descendants of the dead and dispossessed to countries ravaged by Hitler's Holocaust.

There is not much to see. Family homes forsaken at gunpoint were promptly occupied by the peasantry, who deny all knowledge of past owners. Half a century of communism suppressed the flow of memory and imposed a functional materialism. Holy synagogues were converted into schools, or barns. The only relic of centuries of Jewish habitation in villages I visited was an impenetrably overrun cemetery.

With the fall of Communism, the new entrepreneurial class (often as not the former KGB) fostered a Holocaust heritage industry to milk tourist dollars from emotionally vulnerable returnees. In town squares where whole communities of Jews were clubbed to death, pigtailed damsels now greet air-conditioned buses in folk dress, bearing welcome trays of bread and salt. Horrific events, choked off by guilt and ideology, have been reinvented as trinkets and souvenirs. Have a happy Holocaust holiday in the lands of the damned, and don't forget to tell your friends.

Jonathan Safran Foer, in his sparkling debut novel Everything is Illuminated, blew a gaping hole in this fancy scam by taking an almost unbelievably insular young New Yorker in search of the Ukrainian woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Jonathan's 'humble translator' is track-suited Alex, a college drop-out who speaks English as a foreign language as learned off the back of Coca-cola cans.

Their colloquy, poignant and hilarious, much of it conducted in a clapped out Trabant shared with a vicious dog and racist grandfather, has been morphed into film by the fairly hot Hollywood actor Liev Schreiber (Manchurian Candidate) who bought the rights to Foer's book while struggling with a novel of his own about his Ukrainian forbears. The transition from page to screen suffers most of the common flaws. Schreiber lacks Foer's feel for speech rhythms and his sentimental plot changes are formulaic and unconvincing. The Jewish pre-history of the vanished village, richly detailed in the novel, is eradicated as thoroughly in the film as it has been across the East European landscape.

Schreiber's film, which opens in Europe this week, was shot on the cheap ö eight million dollars ö in a Prague studio and along Czech roads none of which convey the vast moral emptiness of the uncharted Ukraine. Even the gypsies on screen are the wrong kind of romanies, their music too southern for comfort.

Still, it is rare enough for Hollywood to grapple with obscure foreign parts, let alone attempt a running gag in linguistic irony, and the novelist seems content with the outcome, praising Schreiber for 'caring' about the subject and professing to respect the director's 'artistic integrity'. What else could he say? Authors are the lowest form of movie life, grateful to get mentioned at all. Foer, one of the most highly prized literary novelists with a million-dollar advance in his mid-twenties, has quite sensibly let go of his first creation in search of the next big thing.

Exploitation lies at the heart of Everything is Illuminated, book and film alike. Making what is essentially an entertainment, a evening's diversion, about a massacre of many innocents is not to be lightly undertaken. It requires more than just an eye for a good story or even a second-generation family connection. Author, film-maker or any other artist must think long and hard about motive before dabbling in dimensions of misery that defy imagination and are more than adequately chronicled by expert historians. There must be a credible justification, a reason that can be given before the courts of conscience, before an author sits down and makes a fine living out of other people's suffering.

Thomas Kenneally had just cause in Schindler's List since the story he was documenting had been generally ignored by Holocaust archivists, loath to investigate its messy compromises. Stephen Spielberg underpinned his film of Kenneally's book with a wealth of survivor testimony which gave rise, in turn, to an admirably international oral history project.

William Styron, in Sophie's Choice, was on shakier grounds and the makers of the movie (Alan J Pakula, Meryl Streep) and the opera (Covent Garden, Nicholas Maw) had not much more to go on than an urge to develop an existing exploitation. Martin Amis, in Time's Arrow, merely exercised his virtuosity by telling an Auschwitz doctor's story backwards, death to birth. Amis described the Holocaust as 'the central event of the 20th century' but many readers felt that he and other imaginative novelists - as distinct from such experiential writers as Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel and Aharon Appelfeld ö lacked the empathy or the authority to convey the magnitude of genocide.

I walked out recently of a Royal Court play in which a Spanish dramatist dabbled for no compelling reason and without much accuracy with scenes from the Theresienstadt concentration camp. I have read, but will not attend, Arthur's Miller's play (currently showing at Salisbury) about the women's orchestra in Auschwitz, Playing for Time. Fania Fenelon's memoir, on which the play is based, has been discredited by fellow-players and Miller's exploitation was, at best, unhelpful.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. The late chief rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits, once related that after the War rabbis agreed that there should be no synagogue at Auschwitz. 'A place where God was absent is no place for prayer,' he said. Likewise, one might add, for fiction and film.

Foer is an outstanding exception among exploiters in that his ingenious narrative did what none had done before. It exposed Holocaust heritage as a hollow sham and opened a vein of sympathy for those left behind, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of survivors who never looked back and went to their venerable graves without speaking of the past.

Yet Foer too is at fault in his recent second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which speaks in the precocious voice of a nine-year-old boy whose father perished in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. There will be many 9/11 novels more cogent than this second-try contrivance. Any author with a streak of conscience must think twice, and think again, before treading on a topic that is soaked in blood and tears. Not everything is illuminated by the novel.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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