How I will tell the untellable

The first day of 2003 was bitterly cold at Auschwitz. Snow lay evenly on the ground, coating the half-dynamited crematoria of Birkenau and the skeletal birch trees that gave it its name. Yann Martel had the place to himself.

He’d been there years ago, long before he’d written Life of Pi, which won the Booker Prize last year. He knew history wasn’t dead in those scarred stones, that one day he would return. So here he was, walking around under a cold sun and an empty sky, minus 15 degrees on the thermometer, and he’d be here for another four days, just mooching around Auschwitz and wondering how he or anybody could possibly write a novel about the Holocaust.

How indeed? Not only is the scale of human suffering in the Holocaust impossible to grasp, but we still live with its consequences: a loss of faith in modernity, in humanism, in faith itself. No other event in history casts the same dark shadows as the meticulous planning by a modern state to kill millions of its citizens for the crime of being different. Yet for all its importance, novelists often find it too overloaded with suffering to even contemplate writing about.

"Whenever I tell people that my next novel will be about the Holocaust," says Martel, "I can just see them inwardly groan. It’s not that they’re anti-semitic or revisionist or because they’re callous. They know how terrible it was, it’s just that no sane person wants to look at it for too long - the mind and the soul can’t stand it. The details ..."

Details like those on the website for the National Holocaust Memorial Day, whose main events take place this year in Edinburgh, and of which Martel is a passionate supporter. Take just one aspect of Nazi genocide in the first stages of the Shoah: the deliberate and systematic murder of Jewish babies by doctors injecting phenol into their hearts, doctors who had reassured their worried parents that their babies would receive the best of care, doctors who signed letters of condolence to the parents and fraudulent death certificates. How can anyone understand the people who committed such atrocities? Why should anybody want to?

The real lesson of the Holocaust, argues Martel, is that it doesn’t just belong in the history books, nor does the moral responsibility for those babies’ deaths lie totally with the doctors who injected poison into their hearts, but in those millions of Germans who had already allowed poisonous views on race into their minds and all those masses of citizens who turned a blind eye to the remorseless implementation of state terror.

"The Holocaust is worth remembering not just for sentimental reasons - although that’s always a good reason and we always should remember innocent people who have been killed," he says. "But there’s a practical reason too - to make sure that it doesn’t happen again." For although the Holocaust was unique, the thought processes behind it are common (Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda etc). Every time we dehumanise a group, every time a prejudice against people who are not like ourselves enters our brain, so too does a spore of genocide.

Sometimes, as Martel points out, those thoughts can come from the unlikeliest of sources. "What really got me going with this book was that I was in India in 1997 when the president of Israel was visiting. And just before he got to Bombay, Indian newspapers were reporting on this mini-scandal in Israel in which he’d said: ‘I find homosexuality is a deplorable phenomenon. And homosexuals make my stomach turn.’ Now if you substitute ‘Judaism’ and ‘Jews’ in those two sentences, you get the kind of thing Hitler or Goebbels could have said. Yet this was the president of Israel. In other words, a Jew who didn’t really understand the Holocaust, who just didn’t get it."

Can literature help? Martel has his doubts - "The same people who have read Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi will turn around and say ‘Ah, these goddam immigrants, there’s just too many of them’" - although thankfully not enough doubts to make him give up making notes and reading up for his own Holocaust novel, which won’t be out until next year at the earliest.

Although the Holocaust is well represented in literature, he admits that the heaviness of the subject-matter "means that it is slowly sinking into oblivion". Testimony has its place (like that of the 50,000 survivors videotaped by Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation), and the more individualised, unsentimentalised and personal it is, the more it burrows into the reader’s consciousness, as Anne Frank’s diaries and Ruth Kluger’s Landscapes of Memory triumphantly prove. But testimony alone might not be enough to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive among those whose families never suffered in it.

Wiesel once said that only those who had lived through the camps should write about them. One can see why he thought that, and why any Holocaust survivor would insist the full record of history be written up with all its horrors intact and exactly as they were experienced.

But since the mind patently can’t absorb too much reality about the Holocaust, and as new generations will always need to understand history’s biggest act of mass murder, Martel has a new approach.

"Apart from a few idiots who deny it, we all know the facts. So what I’m doing in my next book is to write a fable. There will be no Germans, no Jews, no mention of the Holocaust or the Nazis. Instead, I want to examine the emotion of horror, about what it would be like to have your fellow citizens suddenly turn on you, even though you felt you belonged in a country and loved its culture."

In Martel’s fable, a monkey and a donkey will live in a land that is also a shirt. Somewhere else on the shirt-land is a phenomenon called ‘The Horrors’. "The animals will discuss these acts of devastation and be saying to each other ‘How do we remember this event?’ and they’ll be trying to come up with just one simple metaphor to come up with all these facts. Of course, I’ll fail, just as the word ‘Holocaust’ fails to describe what happened, and just as everything fails to describe the Holocaust. But in the very making of that effort, I hope at least to stimulate people into thinking."

If you doubt it will do that, consider two things. First, imagine how absurd a precis of Life of Pi would have sounded and how compelling a read the finished book was. And second, a man who spends New Year alone in Auschwitz deserves to be taken very, very seriously indeed.

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