W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants is one of the books I felt too headachey to continue with last night but which I finished this morning now that I'm feeling better. It's not a long book but it's taken me well over a week to read it. The Emigrants is an amazing, heart-stopping book, a book that demands one linger over it and consider the pain of exile (both internal and physical) of the subjects of the book's four long narratives. The writing, even in translation, was painfully beautiful at times - I say "painfully beautiful" because sometimes it actually choked me up (this almost never happens to me).
I found the last narrative, Max Ferber, to be the most affecting and it made me recall how painful it was to walk through the Holocaust museum in Prague in 2006 with Brook. In particular, this tale reminded me of the room in the museum filled with drawings done by Jewish children in concentration camps during the Second World War. The drawings described the children's fear and despair of being singled out and then isolated and often also revealed, in another hand, the date those children died in the concentration camps.
I cried a lot looking at those pictures as much because of the suffering they revealed as because of the fact that only Brook and I, in an ever-changing crowd of about a hundred, were the only ones emotionally reacting at all to these pictures. Most came in looking bored, very quickly scanned everything (as good tourists do) and then left. Such indifference scares the shit out of me.
I see The Emigrants in many ways as an answer and antidote to such quick considerations and glossings over of history - instead of rehashing a world history lesson people are becoming more and more inured to, Sebald tells the histories of 4 fictional people in that context that is so well known. The context is assumed to be understood so that personal history may take centre stage. Sebald gets down to the most personal of histories, including photographs that make this seem almost like someone's photo album/diary. I don't want to say anymore because I think you should just read it. Plus, I'm being horribly earnest and still feel weepy and it'll be better for all of us if I stop blubbering all over this post.
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