While studying history, the two world wars captured my imagination more than any other historical event. However, even amidst these, I was most haunted by the holocaust - a tragedy of boundless dimensions that touched and wrecked the life of millions of beings. Since then, I have come across this horrific truth in many movies and books, and it is still a mystery to me as to why this ugliness fascinates me and the rest of the world so much that we pursue it time and again.
This fascination and a suggestion from a fellow blogger prompted me to pick up this book. It is said that Sebald is an authority on holocaust, and thus what I was expecting from this book was another vivid account of the misery afflicted on Jews. But in stead, this book completely stormed me by giving a haunting account of life after the holocaust and a victim's almost violent denial and suppression of its memories.
The book is about the life of Jacques Austerlitz - an academician who, in his childhood, is forced to leave Prague as a refugee due to the Nazi accession of Czech territory. He lives in London under an alias and does not come to know his true identity until senior years of schooling. During this phase of anonymity, his subconscious mind suppresses all memories of his exile and childhood spent in Prague.
At some stage, perhaps after meeting the narrator of the novel (who almost seems indistinguishable from Austerlitz himself), he decides to go down the memory lane and uncover the fate of his parents, who, it turns out were not able to escape the holocaust. To piece together the history he goes first to Prague, then tries to trace his mother's movements from one ghetto to another. Eventually he attempts to find an account of his father's life.
Austerlitz's life through these narratives, appears to be a tale of melancholy, disorientation and identity confusion. He is almost friendless and detached, seeking solace only in buildings and their stories. It is this silent loneliness and personality disintegration which makes the story so powerful and heart-wrenching.
Sebald's narration is monotonous. He uses a narrator to convey Austerlitz's story, but apparently the only purpose the narrator serves is to screen off parts of the story and emotions that a first person narrator could not have escaped. The gaps between the meetings of the two serve well to cover the gaps in the protagonist's life. An interesting dimension is added by the use of pictures, and I understand that it is a dimension used by Sebald in most of his works. The pictures do not have any labeling and sometimes you have to struggle to find a connection between them and the accompanying text. While this may be disconcerting at times, the pictures also say their own story and somehow make the sense of a haunting isolation more acute. I particularly liked the use of Turner's watercolor 'Funeral at Lausanne', which reminds Austerlitz of farewell and a funeral he himself attended.
It is difficult to imagine how many lives would have been shattered by a whimsical tyranny, and when we shudder it is only for those who met this terror. But it seems much harder to imagine the agony of those who lived in the aftermath of this terror and survived to face the tremors everyday.