Remembrance of horrors past
Here are two novels suitable for Halloween – the real Halloween: The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung and The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis.
Halloween has come to be associated with TV and film horror. Actually Halloween has nothing to do with costumes, cartoon characters, fireworks and parties, and began as a day “dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers”. Ah well, so much for it being a day of remembrance in North America. Canada is just following along with the nonsensical activities of this day.
Like so many events in history, the Cultural Revolution in China and the Holocaust in Germany have occasionally been the subject of platitudes and trivialization. In both instances, dumbed down versions of the events have become memes instead of retaining their complexity and horrifying detail. For both, governments and organizations have either used these events to further their own causes, or tried to downplay them or deny them. In both instances, historical fact have proven they are low points in human history, shameful indicators of just how misguided those in power can get, how cowed and unthinking those that obey them can be, and how much courage it takes for people to go against the prevailing rules.
We humans do not want to dwell on these horrors. We prefer the comfort of forgetting or not knowing. Conversely, we sensationalize, and emote over, trivial events and people. Therefore, as history has proven countless times, we will be doomed to suffer repetitions of those terrible times. Wise and fortunate are the peoples who have learned from their mistakes and choose remembrance over ignorance. The 11th of November is Remembrance Day (Poppy Day or Armistice Day), and more people will be worrying about whether the Halloween decorations that are still on their houses will get wet, than remembering the dead of the world wars.
The Fat Years, by Chan Koonchung
The Fat Years is a profoundly disturbing novel. It has been banned in mainland China and officially has not been published there. However, the author has said digital copies were disseminated “on the Internet within the Chinese firewall” before being deleted. Koonchung does not speculate who specifically deleted his novel, but the title of an article by him, “Chinese Author: My Book Was Banned in My Home Country”, strongly implicates the Chinese authorities.
It is a cross between Science Fiction, a mystery and satire. Not knowing enough about Chinese history to judge which aspects are being satirized, I could only assume it is set in a dystopian future China. However, the translator of the book disagrees, because of the definition of “dystopia” as an imagined place or state in which everything is bad – and China as it is described in the book is not imagined. “China today and for the foreseeable future is not a dystopia, nor is it an utopia; it is not even trying to be a utopia. It is a Leviathan-like Leninist party-state that is, by the Chinese Communist Party’s standards, a great success, a putatively ‘harmonious society’ that aims to give everyone a ‘moderately decent standard of living’”. (p.259) The mystery aspects of the novel are secondary to the futuristic, imaginative premise and the sub-texts of class struggle and freedom of access to information.
An intriguing premise
Unlike other Chinese novels I have read, this one did not give me difficulties with writing style or the translation. It read like a Western novel, though I found the characters’ names hard to remember. (There is a note at the introduction that the book uses the pinyin Romanization system.) The characters themselves are easy to remember, each one’s motivation, thoughts, pattern of speech, reasoning are convincingly described.
But it is the premise of this novel that is truly memorable, and really disturbing, because it sounds so plausible: A group of friends – some of them had lived through the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Massacre – notice that most of the 1.3 billion Chinese around them are implausibly happy (that explains the smiley face sticker of the cover design). Then they pick up on the fact that a period of Chinese history has been expunged from all records; on the internet, in documents and in books, and in people’s memories.
Forgetting chunks of history
According to the character “He Dongsheng”, a powerful party official, and the Machiavelli of the story, it is the second period in Chinese history that the Chinese Communist Party had tried to make people forget – the first was the year of the “Tiananmen Incident”:
“In the last twenty years, Chinese official discourse has hardly mentioned the events of 1989, as though not mentioning them would make them disappear from history. In order to avoid trouble, popular discourse also avoided discussing the entire year of 1989. Even when recalling the events of the 1980s, discussions always ended with the end of 1988. So everybody joked that in China 1988 was immediately followed by 1990. “ (pp. 225-226)
(Incidentally, the Chinese government condemned the Tiananmen protests as a “counter-revolutionary riot”, and has actually prohibited all forms of discussion or remembrance of the events since. Due to the lack of information from China, many aspects of the events remain unknown or unconfirmed. Estimates of the death toll range from a few hundred to a few thousand.”)
The next period that vanished from the memories of Chinese people – the period in question in this book – was the fictional 28 days between the time between 5 August 2011 global stock markets crash, and the time that China’s “Golden Age of Ascendency” began. Note: 9 August 2007, 15 September 2008, 2 April 2009, 9 May 2010 and 5 August 2011 are the dates of the five key stages of the most recent global economic crisis, and the most serious one since the Great Depression. As reviewer Johathan Fenby writes in The Guardian, “At first glance, it might seem that history has overtaken Chan Koonchung’s book, since the terrible events it describes have not come to pass. But in fact, the book’s central theme remains as valid as when Chan wrote it.”
As beguiling this idea is, readers must remember – and I had to remind myself of this all the time – that it is an invention, it is fiction. There was never any declaration by the Chinese government that August 2011 was the start of the “fat years” or China’s Golden Age of Ascendancy” or its “Action Plan for achieving Prosperity Amid Crises”. But it sounds pretty credible. For instance, during the 2011 crisis, Simon Johnson, Professor of Entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management, commented that the damage from the financial crisis and its aftermath have dealt U.S. prominence a permanent blow. “The age of American predominance is over,” he told a panel. “The (Chinese) Yuan will be the world’s reserve currency within two decades.”
Mass amnesia = 100% happiness
The main characters in the novel notice this mass amnesia that is counter-balanced by the people’s almost unnatural levels of happiness and placid acceptance of their “90% free” status and the censorship and “one-party democratic dictatorship” of the Chinese Communist Party. Suspecting that something weird is going on, and, each one for their own personal reasons, they kidnap a high-ranking party official and make him talk. The last 30 pages of the book is his explanation of what happened, and it makes for unsettling reading, to say the least. On the one hand, it sounds like a fantastical resolution to the mystery, on the other hand, Koonchun describes it – including the typical party-rhetoric – so well it appears conceivable. And this is also where the novel’s very brief and factual ending perhaps falls short. It is a bare 16 lines. But then one cannot imagine any other ending: they kidnapped the head honcho. They are in a no-win situation. Their lives are over.
How does the author motivate that the people of China were so accepting of the new rules enforced by their government to achieve this peace and prosperity? As Julia Lovell (professor of modern Chinese history and literature at Birkbeck, University of London) explains in the preface: “’For years, as one analyst has observed, the Beijing regime has stayed in power using a basic bargain with its citizens – tolerate our authoritarian rule and we’ll make you rich.’” (p. xi).
This bargain – expounded on in the novel – combined with the removal of information about the period, and the Chinese people’s idealism, allowed the government to crack down after the financial crash of 2011:
“Hundreds of Chinese lived through the age that witnessed a storm of idealism and were baptized in that flood of idealism. Even though later on their ideals turned to nightmares and disillusionment, and an entire generation of people and their ideals, still they didn’t abandon idealism.” (p. 199) Speaking though “He Dongsheng”, the kidnapped party official, Koonchung says: “But will the people really forget? For the majority of young mainland Chinese, the events of the Tiananmen Massacre have never entered their consciousness; They have never seen the photographs and news reports about it, and even fewer have had it explained to them by their family or teachers. They have not forgotten it; they have never known anything about it…an entire year can indeed disappear from history – because no one says anything about it.” (p. 226)
The author switches between 1st and 3rd person narration, and choosing a government agent to make this statement is a weighty indictment by Koonchung. With this he illustrates the high-handed, authoritarian thinking of a government that views the people as little more than helpless pawns; “Because they [the people] are afraid of anarchy and chaos, everyone is willing to bow down voluntarily before the power of a really quite unlovely Leviathan.” (p.238)
Do all the protagonists fly to the defense of the truth like Don Quixote jousting with a windmill? No – not that easily. They are, after all, of the people, despite having travelled extensively. There are grey areas here – the government is not the ultimate villain. The people are also to blame:
“Truth itself could be a field of contested knowledge. Nevertheless, when it came to lying with one’s eyes wide open, squinting to deliberately alter reality, distorting the true facts of history without the least scruple, and nakedly falsifying the records – Lao Chen had to feel at least a twinge of uneasiness. But it was only a twinge.” (p.145). Ultimately, it was the choice of the people, as “He Dongsheng” explains. “If the Chinese people themselves had not wanted to forget, we could not have forced them to do so. The Chinese people voluntarily gave themselves a large dose of amnesia medicine.” (p. 287)
Mindset for prosperity
One of the many questions raised by Chan Koonchung in this novel is whether a similar mindset is not the basis for China’s current, real-life prosperity. He raises very complex ideas and I would say I am the last one to understand the argumentation around economic policy and political strategy. But I do understand what happens when a government changes the history books, glosses over some episodes, leaves others unwritten, changes the names of roads and cities, and replaces monuments. People forget. I know because I come from a country where that happened and continues to happen, and each new generation in the “Rainbow Nation” is a step closer to repeating the past.
Yuan dynasty poet Ma Zhiyuan is quoted in this disturbing poem:
the ants crawling round and round marshalling their troops,
the bees roiling in confused chaos brewing their honey,
and hordes of buzzing flies fighting over the blood.”
This is how the people of China are depicted in this novel – crawling, roiling and fighting. Go ahead and read this, and then have a bit of a think about what degree of non-fiction has slipped into this novel. “He Dongsheng” explains, finally, and his words are perhaps the expression of Koonchung’s serious warning in this book:
“Real life isn’t like a detective novel, and everything doesn’t have a perfect explanation. ..It could be that human beings are simply forgetful animals and they long to forget some aspects of their history…It could be that the Chinese people deserve to be governed by the Communist party, and sixty-plus years is still not enough.” (287).
Point taken. As we say on Poppy Day in the Ode of Remembrance, we honor the dead “…lest we forget.”
It took me about three chapters in to realize what I was reading about – where this novel is set, and in which time. The language – a mixture of German, English, Polish words, an Austrian dialect, and Nazi slang – would make much of this inaccessible to people who do not speak the languages. I do. But even so, referring to “Stucke” – which in proper German is Stücke, meaning pieces, to refer to body parts of chopped up Jewish prisoners – takes some getting used to.
Another example is “Kat Zet I”. Kat Zet is the shorthand that the characters in the novel use for “K” in German (pronounced “kay”) and “Z”in German (pronounced “tzet”). It is shorthand for Konzentrationslager, which means concentration camp. Later on it becomes clear Amis means Auschwitz. “Uncle Martin” is Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary during the Third Reich. “Buna-Werke” refers to Monowitz (also called Monowitz-Buna or Auschwitz III) a subcamp of Nazi Germany’s Auschwitz concentration camp, established in October 1942 by the SS at the behest of I.G. Farben executives, to provide slave labor for their Buna Werke (Buna Works) industrial complex for rubber production.
Horror piled upon horror
It got worse page by page from the moment that I realized what was being described – the giant death camp and rubber works at Auschwitz III. But this connected me to the name of the novel: IG Farben, the builders of the Buna Works, was a German chemical industry conglomerate, notorious for its role in the Holocaust. Its name is taken from Interessen-Gemeinschaft Farbenindustrie AG (Syndicate [literally, “community of interests“] – there’s the title – of dye-making corporations). Following the Nazi takeover of Germany, IG Farben became involved in numerous war crimes during World War II. Most notoriously, the firm’s pro-Nazi leadership openly and knowingly collaborated with the Nazi government to produce the large quantities of Zyklon B necessary to gas to death millions of Jews and other “undesirables” at various extermination camps during the Holocaust. The firm ceased operating following the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945, when the company was seized by the Allies; its assets were entirely liquidated in 1952, and 13 executives were imprisoned for terms ranging from 1 to 8 years at the Nuremberg Trials (specifically, the IG Farben Trial) for their roles in the atrocities.
Love even in war
So, into this hellish scenario comes some form of a love story. The protagonist, “Golo Thomsen”, is a high-ranking officer trying to sabotage the Buna Works. He falls in love with “Hannah”, the wife of the “commandant”, commander of Kat Zet I, (“Kommandant” in German), of Kat Zet, “Paul Doll”. “Doll” is a nightmare of a human being and his wife hates him and the Nazi regime with venom:
“’Doll was covered in blood. God, what a bullet does…and still trying to smile. I suddenly knew who he’d been all along. There he was, a nightmarish little boy. Caught doing something plainly disgusting. And still trying to smile.”(p. 291)
In his novel Lionel ASBO, Amis depicts “Lionel” as evil, but also human – self-doubting at times, capable of being humiliated, and aware of his own low status. (Read my review of this novel here.) But “Paul Doll” is a far worse specimen of humanity, who does evil on a massive scale. Lionel ASBO has its black humour. This novel doesn’t even have the faintest whiff of a hint of a smidgen of humour. It is an amazing feat of language and imaging that Amis has performed to get himself into the heads of these characters, particularly the head of “Paul Doll”.
The book is told from the perspectives of “Doll”, “Thomsen” and “Szmul”, leader of one of the “Sonderkommandos” at the camp who tries to save as many prisoners as he can. Credit has to go to Amis for so convincingly and fluently voicing these characters. (In his afterword Amis writes: “For the tics and rhythms of German speech my principal guide was Alison Owings and her Frauen: German Women Recall the Third Reich.”)
“Szmul’s” “Sonderkommandos” were work units of German Nazi death camp prisoners, composed almost entirely of Jews, who were forced, on threat of their own deaths, to aid with the disposal of gas chamber victims during the Holocaust. They had to deal with the “Stucke”. The term itself in German means “special unit”, and was one of the vague and euphemistic terms which the Nazis used to refer to aspects of their “Final Solution” – which is another euphemism.
Gripping, spare depictions
Amis has shown he has a mean turn of phrase and a consummate talent for gripping, spare depictions that hits you in the gut. Here’s one:
“The figures that held my attention were not the men in stripes, as they queued or scurried in lines or entangled one another in a kind of centipedal scrum, moving at an unnatural speed, like extras in a silent film, moving faster than their strength or build could bear, as if in obedience to a frantic crank swivelled by a furious hand; the figures that held my attention were not the Kapos who screamed at the prisoners, nor the SS noncoms who screamed at the Kapos, nor the overalled company foremen who screamed at the SS noncoms. No. What held my eye were the figures in city business suits, designers, engineers, administrators from IG Farben plants in Frankfurt, Leverkusen, Ludwigshafen, with leatherbound notebooks and retractable yellow measuring tapes, daintily picking their way past the bodies of the wounded, the unconscious, the dead.” (p. 89)
As the war turns against the Nazis and the Allied forces move in, “Paul Doll” decides he wants to kill his wife. He instructs “Szmul” to shoot her, and if Szmul does not, Doll will deal with the wife he left behind in Poland. Szmul knows he is doomed in any case, that he, like the other ”Sonders” has lost his soul. But he remembers that one time, Hannah Doll greeted him and looked him in the eyes as if he were a normal human being. He tries to shoot himself instead, but Doll shoots him in the face.
The story unfolds in horror upon horror; large numbers, large-scale atrocities, and small, painful nasty moments and bitter disillusionments (the relationship that “Paul Doll” has with his children, or with his prisoner mistress). The descriptions of torture are referred to obliquely, hinted at just enough to turn one’s stomach. Amis describes the burial pits at the camp like this:
“I [Paul Doll] uneasily realized that I could actually hear the Spring Meadow. Said meadow began perhaps 10 metres beyond the mound where Prufer, Stroop, and Erkel stood with their hands pressed to their faces – but you could hear it. You could smell it, of course; and you could hear it. Popping, splatting, hissing.”
The reader is nauseated as much by the image that jumps into your head, as by the unexpected corruption of the usually lovely image of a spring meadow. Never will green fields in war novels be quite the same.
The zone of interest
Ultimately, it’s a commentary on what people become in times of war. Which side they take – how they rationalize evil. Amis particularly questions the Germans’ “world-historical flair for hatred” in that era. Says “Golo Thomsen”: “Under National Socialism you looked in the mirror and saw your soul. You found yourself out. This applied par excellence and a fortiori (by many magnitudes), to the victims, or to those who lived for more than an hour and had time to confront their own reflections. And yet it also applies to everyone else, the malefactors, the collaborators, the witnesses, the conspirators, the outright martyrs (Red Orchestra, White Rose, the men and women of July 20), and even the minor obstructors, like me, and like Hannah Doll. We all discovered, or helplessly revealed, who we were. Who someone really was. That zone of interest.” (pp. 281, 282)
Remembering those who died
Amis dedicates this book to “those who survived and to those who did not”, and his family, and in writing this novel, echoes the action of “Szmul”, who, before he dies, buries his record of the event for others to find. In fact, buried and hidden accounts by members of the Sonderkommando were found after the war at some camps. “On my way over there I will inhume everything I’ve written, in the Thermos flask beneath the gooseberry bush. And, by reason of that, not all of me will die.” (p.265).
Amis also dedicates the book to Primo Levi, perhaps sharing with him his reason for writing about the Holocaust: Primo Levi wrote:
“We, the survivors are not the true witnesses. The true witnesses, those in full possession of the terrible truth, are the drowned, the submerged, the annihilated. We speak in their stead by proxy.”
In The Drowned and the Saved Levi describes “the grey zone” that of the privileged prisoner – he was himself a prisoner in the Buna Works. On the website of the Museum of Tolerance of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, Illona Klein analyses the chapter, “The Memory of the Offense”, “Levi once again takes upon himself the burden of retelling the unspeakable, of seeking explanations (after all he was a scientist trained to seek possible causes of unaccountable phenomena), of justifying himself and his actions during his captivity. He attempts some interpretations and tries to find some reasons – perhaps at times too rational – for an act of genocide, for which there can be no explanation. Almost invisibly interwoven with the poised, exterior calm of Levi’s prose, used to create and define his arguments, is a fine thread of anguish: the fear of not being heard, the fear of not being believed. Other survivors who have chosen to write about their experiences have expressed the same pain. The identical fear has brought many survivors to choose silence, and in silence they still live today.
Perhaps it is this anguish that moved Levi to bear once again the weight of public testimony to mankind: he refuses the point of view that sees survivors as “chosen,” as people who made it through the unimaginable so that they could write and talk about their terrible experience. There can be no logical cause-effect relations in the events of the Holocaust.”
Levy tells the story of the dead by proxy, and so does Amis.
False but compelling narrators
Yet, painting fully rounded, convincing portraits of even the worst Nazis characters – false narrators all of them but nonetheless compelling to read (Bormann and his “normal” family life, focused on breeding more perfect little Aryans; other Nazi leaders with their “normal” perversions; Doll with his “normal” preoccupation with managing the paperwork of mass murder, Golo with his darling aunt, Mrs. Bormann), Amis makes clear that this is not a straight bad guys-versus-good guys situation.
Amis does not depict the Nazis as monsters, he depicts them as just going about their business, charming, wealthy, industrious and self-righteous. The reader realizes they are evil from what they think, believe and do in the midst of all this “normalcy”. It creates an almost unbearable tension in the novel. One moment “Paul Doll” is fretting about his children’s horse while waiting on the station platform, the next moment he blithely sends a couple of hundred Jews to their death, even while holding one little girl’s hand. It also emphasizes that this was a complex, many-faceted situation, and not to be over-simplified – even in a novel.
Primo Levi is also is quite clear about this and admonishes the reader never to come to a superficial or hasty verdict: “One must beware of hindsight and stereotypes. More generally, one must beware of the error that consists in judging distant epochs and places with the yardstick that prevails in the here and now…. When it comes to the future, we are just as blind as our fathers.” Again, point taken. As we say on Poppy Day in the Ode of Remembrance, we honour the dead “…lest we forget.”