Life & Culture

Book review: The Memory Monster

Yishai Sarid's dark satire exposes the bleak underbelly of Israeli Shoah remembrance


The Memory Monster
Yishai Sarid
(trans. Yardenne Greenspan)
Serpent’s Tail, £12.99

In this taboo-breaking, anguished novella, the Israeli lawyer and novelist Yishai Sarid takes a literary scalpel to his nation’s psyche and dissects it without anaesthetic.

Written as a long letter to the “Chairman of the Board of Yad Vashem”, it describes, in increasingly sardonic tones, the narrator’s employment by the Yad Vashem memorial centre in Jerusalem while researching a PhD in Holocaust Studies.

As a tour guide on the obligatory trips to Poland for Israel’s youth, the unnamed narrator compares and contrasts similarities and differences in Nazi extermination processes in Chelmno, Belzec, Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek and Auschwitz.

It’s his specialist subject, which in theory makes him an ideal guide to accompany these students. But his decision to “harness myself to the memory chariot” and share his detailed knowledge of what occurred at these sites exposes him to the impossibility of the project.

How does he convey what happened 80 years ago to the “expressionless faces” and “indifferent eyes” of youngsters whose minds are “filled with iPhone flickers”?

He’s dismayed to realise that many of them despise the victims because of their passivity, and even identify with the sleek, well-dressed and super-efficient murderers. He hears the youngsters “wrapped in their flags and whispering: ‘That’s what we should do to the Arabs’.”

This almost sacrilegious “invisible admiration of the murderer” is both shocking and psychologically acute. As the narrator comments: “Adults think the same things, but keep it to themselves”.

Part of Sarid’s bravery in this novel is the way in which he gradually exposes, with an unerring and unnerving precision, what can lie beneath certain forms of memorialisation of the Holocaust — the flags and the patriotic songs along with “the Kaddish, the tears, the candles, all that feel-good nonsense”.

He is in pursuit of the hidden moral darkness in Israel’s soul: if you experience your daily existence as a battle for survival then you risk ending up a monster. As one character says, “I think that in order to survive we need to be a little bit Nazi, too…we have to be able to kill mercilessly.”

Part of the disconcerting brilliance of the narrative is the way in which Sarid weaves together the dementing historical record — both the bare statistics and the intimate, historically verified descriptions of what happened where, and how, how often, to whom, and when, hour by hour, day by day — with a biting satire about the perverse dynamics that can now obtain in relation to these events: the narrator is seconded by Yad Vashem to a tech company constructing a virtual reality “educational” game in which participants can play any of the roles involved in genocide. His applied knowledge makes the experience more “realistic”.

Then he’s co-opted by the government and the military for an anniversary event in which commandos would descend in force to “capture” a Polish extermination site as a demonstration of Israeli strength.

As the narrator rises in the hierarchy, proud of his capacity to obey and fulfil his superiors’ instructions, we hear historic echoes; as past intersects with present, Sarid’s irony-inflected narrative illuminates how the monstrous legacy of the Shoah can devour integrity, ethics and self-respect in individuals and nations alike.

Howard Cooper is a rabbi, writer and psychotherapist

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