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Book Review: Austerlitz by WG Sebald

This book is for those who prefer moving ruminations on the theme of memory, history, and time, and who like to be challenged by unconventional but fascinating writing.


The story, unspooled by a nebulous narrator, is that of Jacques Austerlitz, an architectural historian who records origins of massive colonial structures such as railway stations, spas, museums, forts, and libraries all over post-war Europe. The narrator first meets him in Antwerp railway station in 1967 in what turns out to be a life-long acquaintanceship with a strange and melancholic Austerlitz. They continue to meet infrequently during the next few decades and each meeting slowly unpeels the mystery surrounding the identity and origin of Austerlitz.

We slowly learn that Jacques Austerlitz was the only child of a Czech Jewish couple living in Prague just prior to the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Nazis in 1939. Fearing for his life under German occupation, his mother sends Austerlitz, not yet five, to Wales to live as Dafydd Elias with a cheerless couple. He remains unaware about his identity, origin, and name until his fifteenth year. Despite learning about his new name, he chooses to shut out this knowledge, refuses to inquire into his origins, and grows into a lonely and a desolate adult. As a reader we can sense that there is a menace lurking around the corner and that maybe there is a secret that Austerlitz is carrying unbeknownst even to him.

One day, while exploring Liverpool station in London that secret bursts open. He has an epiphany that as a four-year old, he was part of Kindertransport - the informal name of rescue efforts that brought thousands of refugee Jewish children to Great Britain from Nazi Germany. While he was sent to England, his mother was arrested in Czechoslovakia, deported to a concentration camp in Theresienstadt, and then, presumably, to Auschwitz. His father flees to Paris where he disappeared. As Austerlitz recovers flashes of his childhood memory, he becomes an obsessive investigator of his past. He goes to Prague, traces out his childhood governess, and locates the ghetto where his mother was interned. He visits this ghetto and walks through the corridors and rooms where more than 60,000 Jews were held captive before being transported for incineration. His father, we learn, was captured and incarcerated in late 1942 in the French concentration camp at Gurs. Although, we are not explicitly told about the final fate of his parents, we can only infer the worst.

There are many unique things about the book. The most striking aspect of the book is the use of black and white photographs, images, architectural plans, paintings, and ticket stubs to complement the text. It appears that Sebald has included these un-captioned images as documentary evidence to lend sanctity and authenticity to his story. There are also photographs of some real people: a little boy seen on the book cover who we think is Austerlitz, a rugby team of which Austerlitz is a member, and a grainy picture of a beautiful woman purported to be Austerlitz’s mother. But, here is a delicious dichotomy. While the images of the buildings and forts are accurate and help to build a sense of narrative accuracy, we know that Jacques Austerlitz is a fictional character. Therefore, if he is a fictional character, these pictures cannot be of him. Thus, by deliberately projecting the false history of his fictional characters onto the photographs of real people, Sebald artfully muddles the line between fiction and historical fact. In doing so, he confronts the enormity of Holocaust and its attendant horror most elliptically.

The other aspect of the book is the distance that Sebald creates between the reader and the action that is taking place. He achieves this not only through second hand narration but also third-hand, and often fourth-hand story telling. So, we have the anonymous narrator tell us what Austerlitz reveals to be a detail that another character actually conveys. Sebald controls this layering quite brilliantly thereby giving an impression of a complex labyrinth unraveling at a pre-defined pace. Sebald uses this indirect way of story-telling to confront the troubled history of Germany during the Second World War.

Sebald’s virtuosity as a writer is visible in the scholarly digressions in the book that inter alia include the history of moths, the capability of homing pigeons, the integrity of fortifications in ancient forts, the photographic process, and the rejuvenating abilities of spas. These digressions are interleaved with the main narrative unobtrusively and provide a beautiful counterpoint to the impending sense of doom. Sebald’s writing is hypnotic where long sentences connect everything – history, chance, fate, death, and memory.

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