David Albahari’s Götz and Meyer is simultaneously a story of horror and shame, and an amazing feat of language and imagination. The narrator, a Serbian Jew in present day Belgrade, is trying to reconstruct his family tree: his parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts, all who had lived in Belgrade until exterminated during the Holocaust. He is immersed in documents, newspaper clippings, old photos,  all he can gather from the Belgrade Jewish Historical Museum and any other source.  But it is not an analytical collection of names and places he is after.  It is an imaginative immersion into who must have been the people who participated in such a great crime.  His major characters are two non-commissioned SS officers, Götz and Meyer, always joined together in the phrase: “Götz, or Meyer.”

“The distances were not long, but Götz, or Meyer, was looking forward to the breeze that would play through the open truck windows.”

And “Götz, or was it Meyer, once clutched at his throat, but that was when the axle broke on the Sauer.”

These are two men who have turned up in his research, but as he says, “Having never seen them, I can only imagine them.”  With the “or” constantly joining the two, Albahari creates an SS everyman whose name is not important. Only the mystery of his actions.

I knew precious little, indeed, about the faces of most of my kin, but in their case I can at least look at my own face in the mirror and seek their features there, whereas with Götz and Meyer I had no such help.   Anyone could have been Götz.  Anyone could have been Meyer, and yet Götz and Meyer were only Götz and Meyer.  No one else could be who they were.

The two are drivers of a large Sauer truck, which backs up to the Fairgrounds in Belgrade in the Spring of 1942, where all Jews have been temporarily detained.

…the Belgrade Sauer was part of a second series [of trucks], a more perfect series: a full hundred people could stand in the back, apparently, accourding to what witnesses tell us. One can run a simple calculation based on that and conclude that it was essential for the transport of five thousand souls to make at least fifty trips.  During these trips , the souls became real souls, no longer in human form.

In the early days the camp inmates willingly clambered aboard this clean, unremarkable truck, in which Gotz and Meyer took great pride, believing they were going to a more stable, secure place, even a work camp.

Once they’d crossed the bridge and covered a little distance, they’d pull over, and Götz, or Meyer, would get out, crawl under the Sauer, and hook the exhaust pipe to an opening in the underside of the truck.  After that, Götz and Meyer had no longer anything to do but drive, of course.  The truck with the belongings had left them behind long before.  The souls in the back of the truck had not.  They would fly off all at once, precisely when the truck arrived at its destination.  The door in the back would open, the corpses would tumble out, the German soldiers would look away, and the Serbian prisoners would start the unloading.

It is these two rather unremarkable men who the narrator is immersing himself in, trying to understand:

For me, to truly understand real people like my relatives, I had to first understand unreal people like Götz and Meyer.  Not to understand them: to conjure them.

He imagines them in the way he might imagine himself and then dares to say the unthinkable:

“Götz or maybe Meyer … liked to open the window and feel the wind in his face.  At first he was distracted from his fantasies by the dull thumps and muted cries audible from the back of the truck, but as time passed he no longer noticed them.”

He describes the wonderful rationality of the system, and then turns another chilling phrase, as he does throughout the book; one which arrests our forward progress to consider what has just been said:

“So the camp prisoners not only fed themselves, they tended for the dead themselves.  And Götz and Meyer might even say they killed themselves because they breathed the poisonous fumes without being forced to, and the more they inhaled, the more, paradoxically, they exhaled of their own lives.”

He immerses himself to the point that he begins seeing them, talking to them.

Why was it that the war was fought?  Götz and Meyer had no way of answering, and they looked at me as if I might answer their questions.  I don’t know anything, I told them. Götz and Meyer raised their index fingers simultaneously and admonished me.  You know how to turn us into lighthouses, they shouted, but you don’t know how to tell us over which sea or shore our light shines, how can that be?

He imagines that they have a close relation to God:

I must say here that it is entirely possible in the case of Götz , or possibly Meyer, that God was more present than one usually thinks, because Götz, or possibly Meyer, survived the explosion of a bomb that killed at least nine soldiers from his company, thanks only, as he often said, to God’s will, somewhere on the Eastern Front. Because of that Götz, or possibly Meyer, thanked God everyday for his goodness, especially while they were jouncing along in the truck on their way to Jajinci, while in the same truck, in the back Jews were screaming at God with their last breath, asking him why why he wasn’t there, why he wasn’t there yet, why he was never there?

 

His research and imaginings begin to leak into his work as a teacher.

My life, I say aloud in the middle of a lecture on Romanticism, is like a memory that doesn’t know who is remembering it. The students look up, watch me, unblinking, briefly startled, then they shrug and quickly note down my words.  If Götz and Meyer were to knock on your door tomorrow, I continue, what would you do?  The students put down their pencils, look at each other, whisper.  Who are Götz and Meyer, one girl finally asks, I mean what did they write? They, I say, made pure poetry out of bodies.  In rhymed verse?  The question comes from the second row.  In free verse, I respond, with a great deal of repetition.

He takes the students on a bus tour:

This is where it all began, I said as we got to George Washington Steet where the Special Police for Jews were stationed, although it might be better to say, I added, that everything ended here. Of course, I continued, now it is clear and sunny, but you have to picture the December  gloom, a chill morning, shivers that engulf the entire body. They had locked the front door for the last time, picked up their suitcases, and set out.  Adam stood and watched as his Aunt turned the key in the lock and pressed the door handle and then, as she was leaving, straightened the skewed mat. …Adam held his little suitcase, ready at last, to set out in the world.  The driver whistled softly between clenched teeth.  His whistling was closer to hissing, but I recognized the tune. Now I’d like to know, I said into the microphone,  what you would have done in his place.  Silence washed over the bus like water dumped from a basin.  Even the driver turned.  I waited.  First a girl with long blond hair spoke. She pushed her fringe out of her eyes and said that she would take her hamster with her….

I must stop here, or like a Borges short story I will recapitulate the entire novel by way of a summary.  This is truly an amazing book, one of the few Holocaust books I know of written not by a survivor but by one of the generation which followed and barely survived, and who is looking back, trying to imagine, not so much the ordeals of his relatives as the mystery of how such ordeals are possible.  The discoveries of his imagination gain in power,  I believe, because he does not imagine Götz and Meyer as the easy-to-imagine brutal thugs of movie, and in fact of some reality, but as two men doing their job.  One, Götz or was it Meyer, even hands out chocolates to the children before they ride in his truck, out of kindness.

And why has Albahari written this book?  What does another recapitulation of the Holocaust add to our ability to not enter such murderous years again?

Memory, I said, is the only way to conquer death, even when the body is forced to disappear, especially then, because the body merely goes the way of all matter and spins in an endless circle of transformations , while the spirit remains in a transparent cloud of mental energy moving slowly through the world and pouring, randomly as it first may seem, into restored matter, so that no one knows what they’ll find in themselves when they look within.

What especially marks the novel, and makes it more than an historical documentation, is the effort of imagination that lies at the heart of it.  Albahari, as the author, imagines his narrator-researcher, who  imagines his relatives, and the Gotz-Meyer of the Nazi everyman.  He takes his students on a bus trip, and asks each to take a name of one of the exterminated,  and to imagine themselves while on the bus, as if in the truck, to be suffocated while hoping for better conditions than the camp.  He asks each of us, as readers,  with the students as our examples, to  imagine ourselves as victims. to immerse ourselves in the reality of our imagination which, if exercised to the minimal degree, is the only hope of building bulwarks strong enough to withstand the next call to extraordinary — made ordinary– madness.

The translation by Ellen Elias-Bursac, which won the National Translation Award in 2010 , from the American Literary Translators Association, is flawless. There wasn’t a place I was held up wondering what was meant, or by an infelicitous phrase.  As in all good translations we feel we are simultaneously in the country of the text, and in our own.  Excellent.  Albahari has a second novel, Leeches, also translated by Elias-Bursac.  The few reviews at Powells say it’s off-putting — too long a stream of consciouness novel.  I’ll make my own decision later; Götz and Meyer recommends that we take seriously whatever David Albahari says, and how he says it.

I’m finishing this novel and review on a 10 day visit to Paris, which of course had its own sorry history, from which such stories are yet to be written, or perhaps I have yet to find. I’ll leave that for another time and let this marvellous invention of the real do double duty as I walk the streets of the Marais in Paris, from which so many Jews were taken, or fled.  It is here, as the narrator says of Belgrade, a clear and sunny day.  It is not difficult to imagine it cold and gray as the Vichy police begin their morning round ups.