History as a Presence

While living and working in Memphis, Tennessee, I moonlighted as a book reviewer for the local broadsheet, the Commercial Appeal. In retrospect I’m amazed I was able to do it, now in a time when The Washington Post no longer has a separate book review section. There was no money (as I recall), but I got to keep the books and see my name in print on occasion. And I certainly expanded my horizons, not just to unseen lands but to realms of politics at their absolute extreme.

For reasons I can’t imagine, the books I was assigned to review focused on the horrors of savage regimes: Rwanda, Nazi-occupied Poland, Stalin’s Russia. They were pretty obscure titles, too, not even one-off from the mainstream bestsellers that The Post and The Times flog every week.  But they roused ghosts, disinterred secrets, and illuminated passed-over crevices of history that still chill my memory more than 15 years later.

Fergal Keane’s Season of Blood was one of the first book-length narratives about Rwanda before Samantha Power’s and Philip  Gourevitch’s searching works.  I still recall Keane’s opening passage of the Kagera river which carried thousands of bodies into Lake Victoria. For many downriver and for those living on the lake, the first indication that anything was happening in Rwanda was the congestion of bloated corpses on the waterways.

For those who keep a diary — or, for that matter, those who blog — Intimacy and Terror should strike them where they live.  Laboriously curated from hundreds of personal diaries held in the former Soviet archives, this book focuses on only a very few representative diaries from the height of Stalin’s Terror. Some are brilliant and exceptional, including a diurnal-nocturnal diary kept by an artist who recorded his daily doings as well as the dreams that reflected his waking life. But as Winston Smith’s treachery in 1984 taught us, keeping a diary condemns oneself in such a regime. The editors found one of these diaries underlined in red by the NKVD officer who had seized it. It had been submitted as evidence in the trial of its author, who was executed as a counterrevolutionary. Thought crime was a fact in Stalin’s Russia.

Theo Richmond’s Konin resurrects an ancient center of Jewish learning in Poland which was completely obliterated by the Nazis. The few survivors scattered around the world — Britain, Israel, Brooklyn, Australia — and attempted to preserve this razed city as best they could. Richmond, the son of Koniners, collected their memories for this book. They are often too horrible to relate, but one story stayed with me and I hoped against hope it might show up in the recent film Defiance (it wasn’t). It was the story of one Koniner who escaped the liquidation of her ghetto, survived five days with her child in the Belarussian winter, and stumbled across a group of Jewish partisans sabotaging Nazi columns who saved her from certain death. She married the group leader and after the war settled anonymously in the American Midwest.

It is always comforting to cling to individual stories of heroism or conscience against the backdrop of moral calamity. But Hannah Arendt argues convincingly (see my previous post) that under these circumstances there is very little space for moral agency as we understand it.  I would argue that Arendt’s implications suggest heroism and conscience have much more to do with chance and luck under terrifying conditions than personal moral action. The real heroes, I think, recognize this.  Which may explain why those partisans lived so quietly in the Midwest until Theo Richmond found them.

I’ve posted these reviews here (a fourth is of Robert Kaplan’s The Ends of the Earth) because they have disappeared from The Commercial Appeal’s site. I’m sure someone could find them in a library or on a Nexis search, but the latter is by paid subscription only, the former very likely limited to microfilm collections in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi.