Literature and the Holocaust
Sir, – It is rather perplexing that after the runaway success of his work of fiction based in a Nazi concentration camp, John Boyne feels compelled to sound a warning about the recent spate of publications of which his is in the same category (“Avoid John Boyne’s Holocaust novel, Auschwitz Museum advises – Twitter spat follows author’s criticism of proliferation of books with ‘Auschwitz’ in title” , News, January 5th).
The particular difficulty with Holocaust fiction falls on a number of fronts. It competes with first-hand testimonies that, in the case of Primo Levi, Viktor Frankl, Viktor Klemperer, Anne Frank and others, represent exceptional literature in its own right. These eyewitness accounts are among the most compelling and important sources of facts available on the subject.
Unlike superb historical novels like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall or Sebastian Barry’s A Long, Long Way, the Holocaust remains in living memory. Whatever the dangers of mining history’s horrors as the material for a novel, the problems multiply for the writer when victims of those same horrors are still alive.
The continual denial, dilution and distortion of the Holocaust by malignant forces including populist politicians in Europe and elsewhere has helped to fuel a rise in anti-Semitism, globally. Popular works of fiction on the Holocaust that are factually incorrect risk being the only source material for those who come to learn about the subject.
More than ever, in this social media-driven information exchange that we inhabit, facts matter. The Holocaust arrived incrementally. It began with the distortion of words. It is of paramount importance that we guard against factual inaccuracy.
It is right and essential that those teaching on the subject of the Holocaust distinguish works of fiction from carefully researched reference books or firsthand narrative. We are fortunate that there are many fine examples to choose from in these categories. – Yours, etc,