Friday, October 23, 2009

EUROPE CENTRAL by William T. Vollmann

Europe Central should have been titled Big Bill Vollmann's Bag O' War Stories. It is exceptionally well-written (like all of Vollmann's books), but the points Vollmann makes, the ideas he explores and even the tales he chooses to tell are often less interesting and original than the prose that constitutes them. Less a novel than a collection of loosely related stories and novellas, Europe Central suffers from the lack of any overall, unifying structural architecture. Vollmann attempts to make it all cohere into a kind of contrapuntal form, as outlined in the Table of Contents, but he seems to have lost the thread of this structure at some point during the writing process. The result is a bloated book about Nazism, Stalinism, art and ethics that contains many interesting parts (a novella about Shostakovich; the story of Walter Benjamin's sister-in-law, an East German judge known as 'the red guillotine') and far too many pages that deserve to be skimmed or skipped. In other words, it's a typical Vollmann book: beautifully written, very smart, and baggier than a strip club patron's pants.

It's also telling that the book's longest sustained narrative of the Holocaust is the tale of Kurt Gerstein, an ineffectual 'renegade' SS officer who is one of Vollmann's personal heroes. Gerstein, as Vollmann imagines him, is a complex and conflicted character, but the choice of his story as a lens through which to view the extermination camps serves to place Vollmann's narrative in the long line of Holocaust stories that use the Nazi genocide to reaffirm the humanistic ideals that the camps so casually slaughtered. Spielberg's Schindler's List, in many respects an extraordinary film, is the best-known example of this kind of narrative. By way of contrast, I want to mention a darker, more intense film that finds absolutely no affirmation in the ice-cold reality of genocide. I'm speaking of Tim Blake Nelson's The Grey Zone, a movie that came and went in 2001 with little fanfare and that may be the grimmest and most impressive representation of the Holocaust yet achieved by an American filmmaker. Focusing on the prisoners of the Auschwitz sonderkommando, it depicts characters who are both more deeply conflicted that Schindler and more impossibly heroic than Gerstein. It deserves to be much better known.

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