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Book Review : The Powerful Diary of a Death-Camp Ordeal

May 16, 1986|ELAINE KENDALL

The War: A Memoir by Marguerite Duras, translated by Barbara Bray (Pantheon: $13.95)

In her brief preface to this rediscovered diary, Duras says "I found myself confronted with a tremendous chaos of thought and feeling that I couldn't bring myself to tamper with, and beside which literature was something of which I felt ashamed"; a statement calculated to prepare the reader for memories so intense that even after 40 years the emotion cannot be recollected in tranquillity.

While "The War" is neither as meticulously constructed as Duras' recent novel, "The Lover," nor as subtle as her memorable screenplay, "Hiroshima, Mon Amour," the diary and the three stories included in this volume show the sources from which her later work springs, providing both context and concordance.

Though "The War" would have been worth publishing for that reason alone, it not only demystifies Duras' technique but exerts much of the same power upon the reader that it did upon the author herself when she came upon "this thing I still can't put a name to, and that appalls me when I reread it. It can't really be called writing," the author says, suggesting that writing requires adjustment, revision and imposed order. The diary shows none of that, yet is so concentrated and single-minded that it has unity and coherence to spare.

Awaiting Husband's Return

When the memoir begins, the author is awaiting the return of her husband from the German concentration camp in which he has been a political prisoner. Though the war is not yet entirely over, the camps have been opened and the few who have escaped execution, disease or starvation are being slowly repatriated. Day in and day out Duras waits, haunting the depot where returning prisoners are delivered, leaving only to sit by her silent phone; unable to eat or sleep, always feverish. The anguish, at first so acutely personal, gradually becomes general, until the writer's private ordeal expands into a metaphor for France itself.

Duras eventually receives word that Robert is alive, but so desperately ill there's little chance he could endure the tedious official repatriation process. Two of the author's colleagues in the Resistance drive to Dachau, outfit themselves as French army officers, and kidnap Robert from the prohibited area of the camp, "the place where the dead and the hopeless were kept." The two agents walk up and down among the dying, finally recognizing their friend by his teeth; the face and body so drastically altered that physical appearance offers no clue to the identity of the man they knew.

The rest of this 60-page document describes the process by which a human being returns to life. "Yesterday he made enormous efforts to gather up the bread crumbs that had fallen on his trousers and on the floor. Today he lets a few lie." As these images etch themselves into the mind, the reader understands Duras' curious opening statement about literature being something of which she feels ashamed. Such memories, she is saying, must never be altered, diffused; turned into art.

The incidents in the three following stories have been slightly fictionalized, and while they demonstrate Duras' skill, they pale in comparison with the diary, as if the author chose them to prove her initial premise. "Monsieur X," here called "Pierre Raban," is the account of her bizarre and dangerous relationship with the Gestapo agent who first arrested and interrogated Robert before sentencing him to the death camps, a story dramatically portraying the psychosexual connection between sadist and victim.

"Albert of the Capitals, Ter of the Militia" is even more complex, extending and reversing the theme of "Monsieur X." "The person who tortures the informer is me. So is the one who feels like making love to Ter, the member of the Militia. Me. I give you the torturer along with the rest of the texts. Learn to read them properly; they are sacred."

Given that injunction, the ordinary standards of literary criticism simply do not apply to this book. Those criteria were devised for works of the imagination, which "The War" is not. To discuss it in terms meant for novels with fanciful plots, invented characters and carefully elaborated settings, or to even examine it as if it were diligently crafted reportage, seems not only impertinent but indecent.

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