Sunday, December 8, 2013
Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
Austerlitz does not have a conventional plot. Yet, all the same, the novel leads you to a place of horror. The nameless narrator tells us of Jacques Austerlitz, an odd scholar who, in bits and pieces, unveils an amazing story; the story of his life. Austerlitz has lived this life in a haze of forgetting, of avoidance. A scholar of the architecture of old Europe, he likes visiting train stations and libraries. Improbably Welsh, Austerlitz comes from a depressive family. One day, on a visit to a deserted train station, he has an unsettling memory. He travels to Prague where he discovers his already half remembered secret. He is not Welsh, but Jewish. His mother had put him on a Kindertransport to the Britain. He survived the Holocaust; they did not.
There is a definite air of spookiness in this book, supported by old weird photographs, imagistic detours, mysterious encounters in old train stations, and long discursive sentences. The effect was soporific, but strangely compelling, and even though I was mildly bored, I couldn’t put down the book. Right in the middle, the meandering story takes a sharp turn towards horror, as the reader realizes that instead of contemplating the architecture of a library we are instead contemplating the architecture of a concentration camp. And after that the novel gets gripping. And the reader realizes we weren’t meandering at all.
I felt as though I was circling around something, getting closer and closer, then at last must face it. European civilization and Nazi brutality. The entire story felt like an unsettling dream.