The real problem with writing novels about the Holocaust

November 24, 2016 22:55

Over the past few weeks, the literary world and Holocaust scholars have been engaged in two rows over fictionalised accounts of the Holocaust.

One is Annexed by Sharon Dogar - a novel written from the point of view of Peter van Pels, the boy who was in hiding with Anne Frank, and suggesting that the two teenagers had a sexual relationship. Some Holocaust charities, in particular, have taken exception and claim that fictionalising the story risks trivialising Anne's life. The other is Beatrice and Virgil, by Yann Martel, which concerns a taxidermist writing a play about the Holocaust. It has been absolutely savaged in the reviews, and some have apparently suggested that Martel, as a non-Jew, had no business writing about the Holocaust, leading him to publicly state that "Jews do not own the Holocaust".

Personally, I have no problem with the Holocaust being fictionalised. No subject should be out of bounds and a good book on the Holocaust can be worth 1,000 Holocaust ceremonies in terms of bringing the horror home to those who know little about it (see: Sophie's Choice). I certainly have no problem with non-Jews writing about the Holocaust. The Jewish community spends a lot of energy working to raise awareness of the Holocaust in the general population, how can they possibly complain when non-Jews treat it seriously?

No, the real problem in both these cases is entirely different. Would anyone have complained about Martel had his new novel been able to offer some powerful new insight, some memorable images? Would anyone have complained about Dogar had she not included the unnecessary - and some might say slanderous - sexual angle?

Their real "crime" is not to have fictionalised the Holocaust - but to have done it badly.

November 24, 2016 22:55

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