Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Holocaust as Cliché

Sarah's KeySarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Parts of this are riveting -- the story of Sarah's childhood and her family's deportation from Paris to Drancy, and Auschwitz. Unfortunately, much of it is badly written Holocaust kitsch.

I was ambivalent from the beginning about the way the story alternated, almost mechanically at times, between France 1942 (told by an omniscient third-person narrator) and Paris in 2002 (in the first-person voice of an American woman who lives in France). At times I forgot this device and admired de Rosnay's ability to imagine the world of Sarah and her family, but for me, the story ended, or fell apart when the little girl arrived home at her family's abandoned apartment, found the new family living there, and discovered her brother's body in the cupboard.

This was the shock we had been dreading from the first scenes, with a sense of its inevitability, but also hope that some miracle might avert, not just tragedy, but the blank predictability of the boy's death. Surely, the writer could have found a way to keep him, and the story, alive: such as the concierge creeping into the apartment and hearing the boy's cries from his hiding place. Sarah's story might have continued, in that distant time and place, and perhaps even grown magical, managing to convey some deeper message about childhood/war/loss/survival.

It's almost insulting not just to our intelligence as readers, because we saw it coming all along, but to the craft of storytelling that this moment is presented as a climax when it's actually more of a sudden letdown -- a major bummer, and a lousy plot decision from any writing point of view. Not only does Sarah's journey fizzle when she finds the body, so does the story and most of our interest in it.

Now it's Julia's turn to become the heroine, as her narration takes over in all its breathless triviality and false naivete. Julia seems to have emerged from a box labeled Typical American Woman. Tall, blonde, with a model's looks, she works for a Paris-based magazine but has never heard of Vel' D'Hiv or Drancy, or thought too deeply about the holocaust until Sarah's story suddenly takes hold of her life. For that matter, she hasn't even given much thought to why she married her arrogant French husband, except that he's good in bed.)

Cliches about 'the French' spill from the narrator's innocent lips and pen: their coldness and hypocrisy, their grating refusal to acknowledge their role in the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz. Coming from an American -- whose country came into the war late and ever since has supported dictators, invaded countries and murdered millions in the name of "freedom" -- all this has a familiar, hollow ring -- and it obviously sells books. Sarah's Key made the New York Times Bestseller list, and has been widely praised.

A few years ago, a poll showed that French students led the world in awareness of the holocaust. France also saved more Jews, per capita, from the Nazis than any other European country. But Tatiana de Rosnay seems not to care about complexities, and does not bother to delve behind the stylized, diffident facade her Parisian characters present.

Perhaps Sarah's Key could have been a great book, but it almost seems some American editor got hold of an early draft and saved it for Hollywood by not offending Americans' taste for casting themselves in the role of rescuers of the Jews and all humanity.

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