The novelist David Mitchell has suggested there are three ‘themes hardwired into all novels: identity, memory and time.’ With narrative comes time; with time, memory; with memory, identity. In the six years it took me to write my debut novel, Testament, I was grappling with Joseph Silk, a protagonist who reorders time, denies memory, and reconstructs his identity, and in early drafts I couldn’t articulate why. Then I came across an article by Tzvetan Todorov, written ten years after the death of Primo Levi.
Testament is about the impact of the Holocaust on three generations of a family, stretching from 1944 in Hungary to the present day. Joseph Silk was born József Zyyad in Budapest in 1926 – except he wasn’t. Throughout Testament, Silk spins stories of different births, excising the year he spends in Hungarian forced labour service, and then all of his life before that, telling his granddaughter Eva: ‘I was born in London in 1945, eighteen and already a man.’ ‘Of the boy I was, there is no trace,’ he says. ‘It comes down to memory. And I remember nothing.’ Silk removes Hungarian Jewish József Zyyad from history, becoming the English abstract painter Joseph Silk.
Both perpetrators and victims are left with compromised identities, but for victims, as Primo Levi writes in his essay ‘The Memory of the Offence’, ‘memories may be altered’ not for ‘fraud’ or self-defence, but ‘for the purpose of defence’ against trauma, and to ‘exculpate himself from a guilt he does not have’ but may still feel. Silk is one of four victims in the novel – with his younger brother László, who moves to Israel and devotes himself to remembrance, a Czech Jewish girl called Zuzka, and a Serbian partisan called Dragan – who must all respond to the question of memory, negotiating how to survive their survival.
In his essay ‘Against Memory’, Jeffrey Goldfarb notes that one positivist approach to Maurice Halbwachs’ conception of a collective memory maintained by shared social experiences, is the idea that ‘remembering will set us free’. Focusing on the axiom ‘Never Forget’, Goldfarb wonders if remembrance really does bring freedom.
I remember visiting the Terror Museum in Budapest with my grandmother, aged fourteen – except, I don’t. My grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. Great black letters had been painted across the building: ‘We can forgive, but we cannot forget.’ There, on Andrassy Ut outside the museum, I saw her cry for the first time, and for the first time heard her memory of watching survivors return from the camps in the back of trucks on the street where we stood. She couldn’t go inside the museum, where she personally would be forced to remember. We went to Heroes Square instead, where my grandmother played hopscotch across the chequered flagstones beneath the gaze of Magyar tribal leaders.
The author’s grandmother in Heroes Square, Budapest. Photo credit: Kim Sherwood.
Returning to Hungary a decade later while researching Testament, I found the state forgetting and re-constructing the nation’s role in the Holocaust. Goldfarb writes: ‘what we remember and what we forget has practical implications.’ This is a question of ‘how to balance memories in such a way that contributes to a desirable present’ – what that desirable present is, of course, depends on who is doing the desiring. Despite protest from survivors and activists, the government was erecting a memorial that frames Hungary as a nation of victims of the Nazis, rather than a state that enacted anti-Semitic laws from 1920, and collaborated with Nazi Germany in the 1930s, long before occupation in 1944. Collective memory is active, wilful. Viktor Orbán’s Hungary seeks no collective remembrance of the realities of history.
Protest at the new memorial, Budapest. Photo credit: Kim Sherwood.
In 1997, Todorov is missing Levi, who in 1987, either by accident, or by suicide, fell to his death in the apartment building he’d been born in sixty-seven years earlier. Todorov outlines the ‘lessons’ be absorbed from Levi. The first is that ‘memory is always imperfect. We do not use it in a disinterested way, but more often than not to protect ourselves from the past.’ The second ‘introduced a nuance: the memories of prisoners and those of their guards cannot be treated in the same way.’ Todorov goes on: ‘To express this in a way that is not in Levi but that seems to me to epitomize his thinking, I would say that former prisoners have the right to forget, while former guards have instead the obligation to remember.’
Identity is at stake in forgetting or remembering. Todorov seeks to ‘make explicit what Levi only suggests’:
I am always much more than I seem, for I extend far beyond myself in both space and time. … I am not simply me, now, for my past constitutes my identity. To reveal to me that this past is quite different than I believed, or on the contrary to forbid me to put aside parts of it so as to live happily are actions that challenge not just an isolated compartment of my being, but my very identity. I cannot just allow such things to happen; to exercise control over them is thus in the very logic of things.
Reading this, I was finally able to articulate what lies behind Silk’s silence, in an argument between Silk and his brother László:
I have a right to forget. A right to build myself a new life, a right to be happy. Your insistence that I talk, these calls to remember, they are a threat to my being, the man I am now, the man I have been since 1945. I won’t allow it.
Laszlo asks Silk: ‘What’s a man without memory?’ Silk replies: ‘Happier.’
In ‘The Memory of the Offence’, Levi writes that ‘the entire history of the brief “millennial Reich” can be reread as a war against memory, an Orwellian falsification of memory, falsification of reality, negation of reality’, as Hitler ‘denied his subjects any access to truth, contaminating their morality and their memory’, exemplified in such defensive terms as ‘the final solution’, because ‘it is easier to deny entry to a memory than to free oneself from it after it has been recorded.’
Levi notes that victims do not have this option. The experiences – and therefore the memories – are forced on them. And what victims do with them is an individual choice, separate I believe from the imperative of collective memory. Silk has a right to forget. Laszlo has a right to remember. But there will always be consequences, something I partly explored by situating Silk as an abstract artist within a work of narrative.
Frank Auerbach called painting ‘a dumb activity, it has its own language’. By describing the act of painting, I forced language and narrative onto Silk’s chosen muteness, a metafictional macrocosm of the novel’s internal conflict. Silk’s granddaughter Eva is faced with a dilemma after Silk dies in the first chapter: whether or not to allow the Jewish Museum in Berlin to exhibit a witness testimony Silk gave in 1945, making his experiences public for the first time, and thereby compromising Silk’s identity – making him “speak”.
After the Holocaust, comes the Rwandan genocide. Never Forget, Never Again, are promises that can’t be kept, it seems. Todorov draws on an account by Yolande Mukagasana, who writes: ‘The world will only give up violence when it has agreed to study its need for violence.’ I am reminded of James Baldwin, speaking on the television show ‘The Negro and the American Promise’ in 1963:
What white people have to do is to try to find out in their own hearts, why it was necessary to have the nigger in the first place. Because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need him, and the question you’ve got to ask yourself… [is] why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it’s able to ask that question.
For Baldwin, this involves stories. In his 1965 essay ‘The American Dream and the American Negro’, Baldwin remembers a terrible shock, watching Westerns ‘around the age of 5, 6 or 7’, and realising that ‘the country which is your birthplace … has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you.’
Our system of reality is determined by the stories we tell, and the stories we don’t – the memories we preserve, and the memories we don’t – and there is a difference between individual reality and collective reality. A victim has the right to forget. A culture doesn’t.
If it comes down to individual memory, and I have no personal memory of the Holocaust, then the events of the Holocaust are forgotten. But if it comes down to collective memory, gathered through shared social experiences, then the events of the Holocaust can be wilfully remembered – and today’s collective attempts to forget them, defied.
The author and her grandmother on publication day. Photo credit: Kim Sherwood.