Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald

Another stunning novel by Sebald, and this is the first of his to approach anything like a plot.

As with all of Sebald’s books, the themes are on memory, and the Holocaust. Of all his books I’ve read so far, this one most directly addresses the two.

The narrator, who as usual is a maybe/maybe not fictional version of Sebald himself, meets the title character Austerlitz, and they strike up a conversation about Austerlitz’s study of architecture. The rest of the novel is a series of these often interrupted and continued years later conversations, though in the book they are given as a narration of his own story by Austerlitz.

Austerlitz begins by telling the story of how he was adopted at a young age and never knew his real parents. As time goes by, he finds that certain sights, and certain thoughts give him strange feelings of unease or of deja vu. Eventually, through investigation of these things, and a search to find details of his past, he learns the reason he was brought up by a new family:

Both his parents were killed in the Holocaust, and before they were taken, they managed to send young Austerlitz away to safety, to a family in Wales who raised him.

For his whole adult life, Austerlitz has somehow managed to block out all knowledge and awareness of Germany, or anything to do with the war. It has been a giant, subconscious blind spot for him, and in the telling of his story to Sebald, he details the painful and nearly deadly effects of finally coming to grips with his past and what happened to his parents.

This story is gripping, upsetting, sickening, enlightening, sad, and beautiful, and really brought forward the reality and the long term effects of this horrible event to me in a way that not many historical writings have.

Near the end of the book Austerlitz describes some of the events that took place at Theresienstadt, the concentration camp/ghetto that he suspects his mother was taken to. The description is written in one eight page long sentence. The effect is powerful. As I read the increasingly upsetting events described, I felt unable to stop reading, there was no natural stopping point, no natural place to look away. I was dragged along unwillingly with everyone in that camp, as atrocity upon atrocity piled on and nothing was done, and no one looked, or spoke up, or acknowledged the reality of it.

By the end, I just felt a kind of helpless rage. Not only at these past events, but at the present state of things. In only seventy-five years we’ve completely forgotten what happened, and it is happening again right under our noses. Fascists, and even literal Nazis, shout filth in the streets and are taken as viewpoints worthy of protection. We, the US, are running concentration camps–by any reasonable definition of that term, they are concentration camps–for immigrants at the southern border, and the majority of people, in power or otherwise, close their eyes to it. They say ‘it’s not so bad’ or ‘they broke the law, so they deserve it’ or ‘they aren’t American so it doesn’t matter.’

We turn away refugees. We torture, and call it ‘enhanced interrogation.’

I remember learning about the Holocaust in school, and people in my class wondering ‘how could everyone just go along with it?’

This, our world right now, is how.

If you read one book by Sebald, I hope it is this one.

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