MEMORY, TRANSFERENCE AND
RECONSTRUCTION: READER'S PARTICIPATION IN CHARLOTTE DELBO'S AUSCHWITZ ET
APRÈS (AUSCHWITZ AND AFTER)
In Delbo’s text, deception is brought through two major themes: nature and references to social values. First, Delbo scatters her descriptions of hell, with hope and light. It is less a matter for her to suggest that her experience held momentary glimpses of hope, than a way to further emphasize the horror of the camp. Hope and light are often symbolized by blue sky, water, spring and flowers. They are mentioned when Delbo alludes to the life before or outside, but not exclusively, as I will demonstrate it. The short story titled “La tulipe”—“The Tulip”—gives us a good example of this technique. First, Delbo depicts a common scene in her camp experience: the group of women struggling as they walk to work one morning, and face yet another harrowing day:
Then, as they progress, they come upon a home:
Here again, elements of the description assure continuity between this and the previous scene. However, the red bricks contrast here with the gray landscape previously described as well as with the bricks the deportees often had to transport by hand. The color red as well as the smoking chimney suggest warmth and contrast with the “squalls of melting snow” and the wind which lacerates their faces. The muslin curtains is a reminder of civilization and the tulip, a symbol of spring, of hope and beauty, all things of which the deportees have been deprived for so long. The hope, the excitement the tulip brings in the heart of the women is clearly expressed by Delbo:
But the women are soon brought back to the dim reality of the camp and the memory of the tulip itself is soiled by it. The chapter ends:
As we see, hope is brought to the narrator by an image of beauty and by the promise of spring. She is deceived by that same image and by that same promise, as they are ultimately associated to her suffering.
The concept of nature and beauty are similarly rejected in the chapter titled “Adieu”—“Farewell.” In it, Delbo contrasts the process of sending a group of women to the gas chamber with what she refers to as “le monde” ‘the world’. At the beginning of the story and in a passage mentioned earlier, she presents nature and associates it with the reaction it would suggest in the world before/beyond Auschwitz. She writes “C’était un jour d’hiver sec et froid. Un de ces jours d’hiver où on dit: ‘Il ferait bon marcher.’ Des gens. Ailleurs” (80). ‘It was a dry, cold winter day. One of those wintry days when people say: ‘It would be nice to take a walk.’ People. Somewhere else” (Lamont 49).
This reference is contrasted further by the silent cry of the women transported to their death as she says “Rien n’entendait ces appels du bord de l’épouvante. Le monde s’arrêtait loin d’ici. Le monde qui dit: “Il ferait bon de marcher” (81). ‘Nothing heard these cries from the edge of dread. The world stopped far from there. The world that says, ‘It would be lovely to take a walk’’ (Lamont 50). Here, not only is the previous reference to normalcy defeated by the horror of the impending slaughter of the women, the narrator also stresses the indifference of the world beyond, an indifference simultaneous to the murder but which as we know, also lingered in post-war societies.
As we see, these references to what I have called earlier “normalcy”, and to what Delbo refers to as “the past,” “home,” or “childhood,” are often brought to consciousness by glimpses of natural and simple beauty. These references connect reader and writer and as Delbo’s text defeats them, the narrator thus allows writer and reader to acknowledge in unison, the inhumanity and abnormality of Auschwitz. Even though she writes that “as we spoke of the past, the past became more unreal” (Lamont 76), she keeps bringing the past into consciousness and her present thus becomes more real to us, readers from her future.
In fact, an important factor here is the relationship, which the witness tries to establish between past and present. As I pointed earlier, mentions of normalcy, of references shared by both writer and reader are often made in the past tense. What is held by deep memory, the camp experience, points to a rupture in the narrator’s life and identity. To describe particular episodes of her Auschwitz experience, Delbo often uses the present tense. The present diminishes the distance between reader and text and makes the scenes more vivid, allowing the reader to experience these scenes simultaneously to the act of telling.
As part of this familiarity or normalcy, which Delbo uses to coax her reader to the text, then, as I showed, to deceive her, we also find numerous references to familiar human and social values. As the reader processes Delbo’s text, she is called to reverse these values which she expected to be universal, and she is forced to reconstruct the horror of the camp as a place where those values are no longer in effect. The following excerpts are taken from the first story “Arrivées, départs”—“Arrivals, Departures”:
Again, the reader has to call onto her own set of historical references and she is asked to deny herself a social value she may have so far held for universal: in Auschwitz, women and children are only given the privilege to die first. The following passage functions in a comparable way:
The reader is asked once again to fill the gap but this time, the narrator also asks her to answer a question. The rhetorical character of this question leaves no escape: we now know what “they” can do.
I would also like to suggest that in her work in general, and in the first story titled “Rue de l’arrivée, rue du départ”—“Arrivals, Departures”--, in particular, the deception experienced by Delbo’s reader parallels that of the victims unaware of their fate. This technique thus allows the reader to identify more easily with the victims, all of the victims: in this case, not the political prisoners, like Delbo herself, but the Jewish victims arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Delbo repeats “ils ignoraient, ils ne savent pas, ils ne comprennent pas.” ‘they ignored, they don’t know, they don’t understand. Here is a passage illustrating this:
Throughout her text, Delbo establishes connivence—complicity—between narrator and reader. She and her reader share common historical knowledge and social values which allows them to grasp what the future hold for the unaware victims, as well as the concept of Auschwitz as a place where human values are worthless. Again, this complicity leads to a more active reader’s participation in the testimony. It is clear in the following excerpt:
The “we” Delbo uses at the end of this passage leaves ambiguity. Whether it embodies the women in her group and she or the reader and she, Delbo, through the change in the narrative voice, provides within the text, the reader’s reaction to this episode: the conclusion that Auschwitz is a place where motherhood has changed meaning and has become irrelevant.
As Nicole Thatcher has suggested and as we saw in the passage I just cited, switches from a narrative voice “je”--“I”-- to a “nous”-- “we”--, and also scattered throughout the trilogy, to a “vous”-- “you”-- represent as many changes in the narrator’s identity. Thatcher mentions Gérard Genette who noted that the voice in the narrative discourse is not only the narrator who speaks but “éventuellement tous ceux qui participent, fût-ce passivement, à cette activité narrative” ‘eventually all those who participate, even passively, in this narrative activity’. Thus, according to Genette, the variety of narrators suggests a variety of readers. (Thatcher 110) And for our purpose, here, we can say that this variety of readers is called to provide a variety of reactions. Or, that the multiplicity of narrative voices, echoed by multiple responses from the readers, represent another attempt by Delbo to reunite her split self, her common and deep memories, and to reconcile, in the reader’s reactions, her realities.
copyright © Dominique A.H. Linchet.