The first English translation of a book by Israeli novelist Yishai Sarid appears at an opportune time. Restless Books is publishing Yardenne Greenspan’s able translation of The Memory Monster amid a fresh rise of fascism in the West. At the same time, a survey has found 63% of young adults in the U.S. unaware of the extent of the Holocaust, and one in eight apparently ignorant of its existence entirely. With survivors growing ever fewer, it’s a big question: Who will sustain the memory as a living warning to humanity, and how will they do it?
The task falls to curators, librarians, archivists, and documentary filmmakers, but perhaps most of all to writers. Sarid, born in 1967, has found a sensible way to bring the unspeakable horror of the Shoah to life on the page. He posits an Israeli scholar who takes the Holocaust as his field of study, not by conviction but almost by happenstance. After becoming expert in the methods of mass murder practiced at each of the Nazis’ concentration and death camps, he develops a career as a guide leading and lecturing groups of Israeli students on tours of those sites.
His career sucks our unnamed narrator ever deeper into the physical history of the genocide. He has a wife and young son in Israel, but takes an apartment in Warsaw to be near his work. He’s also laboring on a book version of his doctoral thesis on the camps, to be published by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial institution. The entire compact novel is presented as a letter to the Yad Vashem director, who is his publisher and sometime boss.
Numerous powerful passages evoke his increasingly vivid interior experiences of what happened at the camps. Those historically informed imaginings begin to take over his personality. He finds it difficult to connect with the students, whose shining, detached patriotism feels more and more distant from his own entanglement with the agonizing history he struggles to teach. Sliding toward a seemingly inevitable breakdown, he becomes grimly transfixed by the evil side of human nature.
Learning that his son is being bullied in school, he lashes out at the small perpetrators.
He wasn’t especially short or weak, but he couldn’t hit back, and these boys took advantage of him. I knew this because I used to be like him, but I had since realized: to gain any kind of social standing, man must be capable of killing…Force is the only way to resist force, and one must be prepared to kill.
Along the way he consults for a technology company that’s building an animated re-creation of the death camp experience. He points out to the developer that this seems to really be a video game. “Finally, he conceded, ‘You can call it that if you want. People love horror games.’ I have no idea why he admitted it.”
But we sense that he really does know. The living memory of the Holocaust, the monster of the book’s title, is in danger of transforming into an object of mere cultural exploitation. Eventually even our narrator can’t resist role playing, on the screen as well as in his imagination. “I pulled a gold tooth from the mouth of a corpse and placed it in a box. Then I switched to being German and whipped a Jew. Then I was a kapo and ladled out soup. I couldn’t stop – their game was so wonderfully terrible.”
An Israeli dignitary’s visit to Treblinka is treated as a photo op: “The photographer documented him from all angles, standing in front of the monument with his head lowered, until finally the minister said, ‘Okay, guys, let’s get out of here.’ It really was very cold.”
In a key scene, the narrator encounters a Hasidic Jew on a pilgrimage to a famous rabbi’s Polish grave. When the narrator explains that the Hasid’s tale of a wartime miracle is just a fantasy, the religious Jew will have none of it: “Perhaps one day you’ll join us and see what I’m talking about. You could witness real Jewish joy with your own eyes.”
But he can’t – not with eyes that have spent a lifetime absorbing the real history in detail. Nothing remains for him but an ultimate humbling that leads to the very sort of action his meek bullied son couldn’t muster. The book feels like real life in its humble details, but even more so in its implied conclusion that no ultimate actions, no final solutions, are ever truly available to us.
Whether or not a novel like The Memory Monster gains wide readership among the historically ill-informed younger generations of the West, it makes a valuable contribution to the present generation of Holocaust literature. It adds to the hope that the memory of the monster may linger unto the nth generation.
The Memory Monster is out now from Restless Books.