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15 April 2011

Austerlitz

and, talking of odd books, I've reread, or at least I think I have, Austerlitz by W G Sebald. The weird thing is that I could remember very little of it, and I seriously am uncertain if I did read it before. Which is appropriate, because one of the things the book is about is memory and forgetting.

You know you're in a strange world when a book begins like this:
In the second half of the 1960s I travelled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study purposes, partly for other reasons which were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for just one or two days, sometimes for several weeks.
That mystery - here on the part of the narrator - is very much part of Austerlitz's story: he is compelled into action by forces he doesn't understand.

Austerlitz, the central character of the book, was a Jewish Czech boy, sent to Britain by his parents before the second world war to escape the coming holocaust. Over a period of around thirty years he tells his story to the narrator, once from ignorance and then from knowledge of his own background. Simplistically you could see the story as representative of Europe's coming to terms with what happened under Hitler, or more specifically with Germany's self-awareness (a theme that's present in Sebald's Natural History of Destruction), where the narrator - largely invisible - has to be mapped on Sebald himself and by extension onto Germany (though the narrator's nationality isn't mentioned, the fact that it was written in German is important).

So, let's step back a moment into translation theory. The fact that Sebald wrote in German is significant. The German language had baggage in the second half of the twentieth century. Isn't that lost in translation? Sebald's narrator didn't have to say "I (the narrator) am German", his language did that for him. Similarly, a Spanish book would mean something different if it was written in Basque or Catalan. How does translation capture that?


Let's leave that aside for now. Austerlitz is a moving, because understated, portrayal of the effects of destruction of history, personal and racial. One day, maybe, I'll look at the way it works, at, for example, the way the photos illustrate and at the same time undermine the reality of what's told. But I'll just end this post with a sadness. On the front cover an unnamed reviewer in The Times says "Sebald is the Joyce of the 21st century". He died in December 2001.

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