Thursday, March 7, 2013

A review of Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay and some thoughts

This is the review of Sarah's Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay I just put up over at Goodreads.

How can I explain my reactions to this book? 

First off, looking at the work, itself, without placing it into any larger context, it's well-written, and the characterizations range from excellent to cardboard. The saddest part, for me, was that in general the most compelling characterizations were for generally minor characters. 

This book can be considered to be split into two stories - the story of the modern day narrator - an ex-pat American journalist Julia, married to a Frenchman, and still somewhat apart from her in-law's family dynamic; the other story is that of a ten-year old girl, Sarah, living in Paris under the German occupation. The action for both stories starts with the Vel d'Hiv round up. For Sarah it's when the French police come for her whole family; for Julia it's when her editor tells her to write up a piece about the round-up for the ex-pat centered magazine she works at. 

Working from these two starts, de Rosnay paints a picture of the Vel d'Hiv roundup, using Julia's narration to expose the larger picture - discussing statistics, numbers, the extent of the planning, and other abstracts; from Sarah's narrative, we get a personal view of what those numbers might hide. 

When I speak of the characterizations, we get some compellingly sympathetic depictions of modern French characters, some people in the English-speaking ex-pat community that Julia orbits, and Julia's daughter Zoe. Sarah's characterization is also excellent, though kept at more of a distance. The biggest problem I had with the modern narrative is that one of the key characters within that portion of the story is Julia's husband - and he's a cipher. Now, some of that, I believe, reflects a deliberate narrative choice by the author - one of the themes for Julia is how examining the story of the Vel d'Hiv is forcing her to reexamine so much else in her life, too. 

While we get told that there was a great deal of physical chemistry between Julia and her husband, we never get any real sense of that in the narrative. It's not that I wanted to be taken into the bedroom with Julia and her husband - but I would like to be able to believe that the two characters being shown to me were people I could believe would go to their bedroom together. And I couldn't. The whole dynamic of that relationship was so unconvincing to me that I really could only connect with Julia's narrative when she dealt with other people. 

In the end the novel does tie the two narratives together in a manner that is plausible, and, if not precisely satisfying, at least having the benefit of verisimilitude. Along the way there are several well done climaxes provided to the reader - and perhaps the most satisfying, for me, came not in Sarah's story, but in Julia's. (I'll discuss that in a moment, when I start connecting the novel to other books, to history, and to certain philosophical points.) In the end I found this to be a very good book - not great, but certainly one I have no trouble recommending to any reader. 

From here on, I will make no further effort to avoid spoilers, and I am going to be bouncing around a lot with connecting this book to other books, fictional and non-fiction, about the Holocaust and Holocaust survivors. And especially about the duty to witness and remember. 

First off, some personal background: when I was a teen my interest in military history, the macabre, and especially survival stories brought me into that subset of WWII themed books dealing with the Holocaust, and especially Holocaust survivor's accounts. I read a lot of these, both age-appropriate ones, and those that were written for the adult audience, too. As such, I have a list of cliches that I expect to see in such stories.

While it has been many years since I was a teen, I found those cliches still fresh in my mind. And with one notable exception de Rosnay seems to have put all of them into her account of Sarah's experiences. Perhaps especially annoying was when they would be present in a manner that seemed to contradict other cliches. Some I can accept as being more-or-less representative of real experiences of survivors, since so much of what happened was contradictory. Other cliches, such as having two girls escaping together from the transit camp at Drancy, but only one of the two surviving, even after they found sympathetic shelter, seemed a bit egregious. While it served a narrative purpose, once more emphasizing how some people were cooperating with the occupiers in their efforts, it remains the incident that most threw me out of the narrative for either story - Sarah's, or Julia's.

(Especially since, if de Rosnay felt, for narrative purposes, she has to make Sarah feel a completely isolated lone survivor, it would have been even more emotionally effective had the gendarme who found the two girls attempting to sneak through the fence stayed with his original impulse - and let only Sarah escape, while taking her friend back to the camp. Granted, that would have tarnished, badly, one of the acts of grace that de Rosnay did make sure to include her narrative, but it wouldn't have felt quite so predictable. Of course, predictable fiction doesn't mean unbelievable fiction. Just often dissatisfying fiction.)

Which brings me to one of the things that I feel was very, very well done in the novel as a whole. While there is no attempt to whitewash anything about the complicity of the government, nor how there was popular support from some people for what happened, there was also no attempt to present that as the sole representation of the French reaction to the occupation or the treatment of the Jews. There are acts of grace all through Sarah's story, culminating not simply with the Dufaure couple, who take in Sarah - but with Julia's father-in-law, and his own father. (Since, of course, Sarah's story and Julia's do connect. See what I said about cliches earlier.)

None of which changes that Sarah went through a shattering experience. Nor is any attempt made to say that the one makes up for the other. Just a recognition that for all the complicity there were numerous individual rebellions, too.

One of the themes throughout Julia's narrative is that of looking away from unpleasant history. Especially history that touches on one's own family, or nation. Julia goes on, time and time again, asking her friends - usually other ex-pats, then even her sister living on Long Island - whether they'd ever been taught anything in school about the Vel d'Hive round up. The clear implication, and I believe it was mentioned at least once, was that Julia felt (and here I can't help but think she was speaking for the author, too) that it was a major failure for those person's education to have left such a horrible event unremarked.

Now, here we start to get into questions of 'who can criticize what.' Or to put it in a more crude fashion, how close need a person be to be able to validly criticize another nation or culture's reaction? Because Julia is an American ex-pat, I think it's quite reasonable for de Rosnay to refuse to have Julia make specific criticisms of the French people and government for how they've been willing to buy into the idea of the Holocaust having been something imposed upon Europe entirely by the Nazis. (More on that in a few paragraphs)

There are several places where the narration invites such criticism from the reader, but wisely de Rosnay keeps Julia from making such criticisms herself.

However, the criticism that Julia seems to focus on is that American schools should be teaching the Vel d'Hiv round up. And I can't agree with that. American curriculum, I think, would be satisfied with making a small stab at the idea that the Holocaust were something uniquely German, or unique to the Nazi party. The truth is a bit murkier, and the Vel d'Hiv round up illustrates that - there was a lot of anti-Semitism in Europe, and even in the US, at that time. The Dreyfus Affair was only completed in 1906, after over a decade of back-and-forth about the role of Jews in French society. The cooperation provided not simply within occupied France, but from Vichy France, towards the racial goals of the Nazis is something that should be part of US curriculum.

But even more, the US curriculum needs to focus on the questions of our own domestic issues of the time: Why was the MS St. Louis refused permission to debark her passengers in the US? What made that acceptable? What justification was there for gathering up the Nisei into concentration camps of our own? What conditions and attitudes created the mutiny of the African American sailors after the Port Chicago disaster, or any of the other mutinies involving African American troops during WWII?

Rather than focusing on the mote in our neighbor's eye, let's shed some light on things that people like to keep hidden here. That, in my opinion, is a better focus for US curricula than an exhaustive discussion of the Vel d'Hiv round up.

One of the things that becomes increasingly clear to me as I get older is just how convenient scapegoats are. If the scapegoat can be tarred with the whole guilt for some terrible event, it has the effect of taking away the stigma of sins from anyone else who might be at fault as well. To use an example from American history, the Cherokee's Trail of Tears is often presented and remembered as something that Andrew Jackson did to the Cherokee. The reality is rather more disturbing: The Trail of Tears didn't even happen while Jackson was President, but during the term of his successor, Martin Van Buren. The Supreme Court explicitly said that the relocation was legal. The popular support for the relocation was hard to overstate.

But for most Americans, now, it is something done solely by Andrew Jackson. (It certainly helps that while Jackson had his own virtues, it is also accurate to say the man was a cast-iron son-of-a-bitch.)

Similarly, every nation occupied by the Germans during WWII finds it convenient to buy into the narrative that the Holocaust was something imposed upon them by the Germans, or more often, by the Nazis and the Gestapo. This puts the blood guilt onto a foreign group, and even better if it can be a currently marginalized foreign group. And ignores how, with exceptions like Denmark, the governments of occupied territories often complied with the racial agenda of the occupiers.

If we forget such failures of governments, if we allow a veil of silence to be drawn over such incidents - we prevent the sort of questioning attitude that is our best defense against a repeat of similar atrocities in the future. Which, I think, is a position that Julia (and Tatiana de Rosnay, herself) would agree with me about, even if we continue to disagree about the validity of including the Vel d'Hiv round up, as part of a US curriculum.