Sunday 6 August 2017

W, or, The memory of childhood 
by Georges Perec   {Reviewed by THOMAS}

“I write: I write because we lived together, because I was once amongst them, a shadow amongst their shadows, a body close to their bodies. I write because they left in me their indelible mark, whose trace is writing. Their memory is dead in writing; writing is the memory of their death and the assertion of my life.” Both of Perec’s parents were killed in the 1939-1945 war, his father early on as a French soldier, and, soon after, his mother was sent to a death camp. Their young son was smuggled out of Paris and spent the war years in a series of children’s homes and safe villages. “My childhood belongs to those things which I know I don’t know much about,” he writes. W alternates two narratives, the first an attempt by Perec to set down the memories of his childhood and to examine these not only for their accuracy but in order to learn the way in which memory works. Often factual footnotes work in counterpoint to the ‘remembered’ narrative, underscoring the limitations of the experiences that formed it. Right from birth the pull of the Holocaust is felt upon Perec’s personal biography, and his story is being shaped by this force, sucking at it, sucking his family and all stability away. Sometimes he attaches to himself experiences of which he was merely a witness, the memories transformed by remembering and by remembering the remembering, and so forth, and by the infection of memories by extraneous imaginative details. “Excess detail is all that is needed to ruin a memory.” The absences around which these memories circulate fill the narrative with suppressed emotion. The other narrative begins as a sort of mystery novel in Part One, telling how one Gaspard Winckler is engaged by a mysterious stranger to track down the fate of the boy whose name he had unknowingly assumed and who had gone missing with his parents in the vicinity of Terra del Fuego where they had gone in search of an experience that would relieve the boy’s mutism. In Part 2, the tone changes to that of an encyclopedia and we begin to learn of the customs, laws and practices of the land of W, isolated in the vicinity of Terra del Fuego, a society organised exclusively around the principles of sport, “a nation of athletes where Sport and life unite in a single magnificent effort.” Perec tells us that ‘W’ was invented by him as a child as a focus for his imagination and mathematical abilities during a time when his actual world and his imaginative world were far apart, his mind filled with “human figures unrelated to the ground which was supposed to support them, disengaged wheels rotating in the void” as he longed for an ordinary life “like in the storybooks”. Life and sport on W are governed by a very complex system of competition, ‘villages’ and Games, “the sole aim to heighten competitiveness or, to put it another way, to glorify victory.” It is not long before we begin to be uncomfortable with some of the laws and customs of W, for instance, just as winners are lauded, so are losers punished, and all individual proper names are banned on W, with athletes being nameless (apart from an alphanumeric serial number) unless their winnings entitle them to bear, for a time, the name of one of the first champions of their event, for “an athlete is no more and no less than his victories.” Perec intimates that there is no dividing line between a rationally organised society valuing competition and fascism, the first eliding into the second as a necessary result of its own values brought to their logical conclusions. “The more the winners are lauded, the more the losers are punished.” The athletes are motivated to peak performance by systematic injustice: “The Law is implacable but the Law is unpredictable.” Mating makes a sport of rape, and aging Veterans who can no longer compete and do not find positions as menial ‘officials’ are cast out and forced to “tear at corpses with their teeth” to stay alive. Perec’s childhood fantasy reveals the horrors his memoir is unable to face directly. We learn that the athletes wear striped uniforms, that some compete tarred and feathered or are forced to jump into manure by “judges with whips and cudgels.” We learn that the athletes are little more than skin and bone, and that their performances are consequently less than impressive. As the two strands of the book come together at the end, Perec tells of reading of the Nazi punishment camps where the torture of the inmates was termed ‘sport’ by their tormentors. The account of W ends with the speculation that at some time in the future someone will come through the walls that isolate the sporting nation and find nothing but “piles of gold teeth, rings and spectacles, thousands and thousands of clothes in heaps, dusty card indexes, and stocks of poor-quality soap.”

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