Bruno Doesseker is the real name of a Swiss author known to the world as Binjamin Wilkomirski, a Latvian Jewish concentration camp survivor and memoirist who is now accused of having wholly fabricated his harrowing tale of toddlerhood in the camps. When I read about him earlier this week in the New York Times, I immediately sided with the guy–whatever his name was. I hadn’t read the book, but I remembered the reviews. Here was an author hailed by one shaken critic after another for the literary quality of his horrific prose. His book (his first) had been instantly promoted to the first ranks of the Holocaust canon. What did factuality have to do with artistic merit?
Before you write me off as a waffling postmodernist, let me remind you that publishing fiction as truth is an enduring tradition in world literature, dating back to the early days of the novel, a genre deemed suspect because it involved telling lies. One of the greatest novels in any language, Robinson Crusoe, was published by an author named Robinson Crusoe–not by Daniel Defoe–and passed off as a factual tale. The Spanish picaresque tales that Cervantes harvested in Don Quixote were published as autobiography. Mark Twain parodies this custom in the opening paragraph of Huck Finn, when he has Huck assure the reader that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was true, even though written by this other fellow, Mark Twain: “There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.”
Before Wilkomirski a.k.a. Doesseker was exposed–his nemesis was another Holocaust memoirist, bitter at his lack of comparable success–he traveled around the world giving seminars on the memory-recovering techniques that led to his “discovery” that he was a Holocaust survivor. That was snake-oil-salesman-ish of him, but still. All those reviewers couldn’t be wrong. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this mischievously category-defying masterpiece and savor the higher truths that emanated from its pages.
Alas, read as a novel, Binyamin Wilkomirski’s Fragments is maudlin and obvious. The device of the child’s point-of-view would have had no credibility if the author hadn’t sworn to having had the memories himself. First he apologizes for the book’s fragmentary nature; then he proceeds to recount the most neatly sewn-up Holocaust tale I’ve ever read. Every step is taken in this three-year-old’s progress toward ultimate horror. Every detail is in place, although the childish narrator professes not to understand them. There’s the death of his father. The story of hiding in a farmhouse where the farmer’s wife is raped by a soldier. On it goes: How the child was separated from his brothers. The motherly guard who took him to the camps. His life in the barracks. A visit to his mother. How he survived when everyone else died. How he ended up in Switzerland, alone and wildly misunderstood. As fact, it’s implausible: No child who had gone through what he had gone through by the age of six would have remembered every key element this specifically. As fiction, it’s banal: Steven Spielberg couldn’t have written a more helpfully linear screenplay, or given us the eyes of a more heartbreaking innocent to view it through..
This raises the question of why so many critics were so moved by so many clichés. It’s not hard to understand, I suppose. Wilkomirski/Doesseker traffics in the most appalling subset of the most gruesome atrocities known to humankind–the brutal degradation and casual annihilation of uncomprehending children. We’ve been primed to pity by other Holocaust classics, many of which–The Diary of Anne Frank, The Painted Bird, Night–also involve children, as if only children could give adequate testimony to the horror of what took place. It is all but impossible to retain critical equanimity in the face of such things, especially when we know that what Wilkomirksi/Doesseker tells us, was, in its rougher outlines, true. Fragments does us the favor of filling in more of those outlines, but with only marginally more artistry than a network newsmagazine-style “reconstruction.” It’s too bad. I can’t help wishing Wilkomirksi/Doesseker had been more subtle in his efforts at deception and produced the magnificent fraud world literature deserves.