Spark of Life (Der Funke Leben)

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SPARK OF LIFE (Der Funke Leben)

Novel by Erich Maria Remarque, 1952

In one of Tadeusz Borowski 's greatest stories, "Silence," a dozen inmates of Dachau, which has just been liberated by the Americans, are trampling to death an SS guard. When an American officer enters the bunk for an absurdly polite pep talk, the campers shove their victim out of sight, and the moment the American has left, they finish the job. The story might serve as a commentary on Francis Bacon's essay on revenge: "Revenge is a kind of wild justice which the more man's nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out." And he adds, "The most tolerable sort of revenge is for those wrongs which there is no law to remedy; but then let a man take heed the revenge be such as there is no law to punish."

Erich Maria Remarque's Spark of Life, published in German as Der Funke Leben, points rather the same moral in what was one of the earliest novels about life in a death camp—Anna Seghers's The Seventh Cross, which appeared as early as 1942, takes the concentration camp as a point of departure, focusing on the landscape of flight from a camp. And it necessarily takes place years before Spark of Life, which minutely describes a camp in the last months of the war, at a time when the country was being scorched by Allied bombs and the Allied advance had begun to encourage at first resistance, then "wild justice," among the inmates. (The novel can be roughly dated by a reference to the Nazis' failure to blow up the Remagen Bridge on 11 March 1945 as having occurred "quite a while in the past.") The hero, an inmate since 1933, is simply identified as "509," and the disclosure of his name some two-thirds through the story rather transparently marks a turning point. (No one seems to have made anything of the name, Koller, which appears as a common noun dozens of times in All Quiet on the Western Front alone and can best be translated by its cognate "choler.") The refusal by 509 and a younger inmate, Berger, to submit to lethal experiments marks the first downright act of resistance, and 509 first experiences the sense of being a mensch again when he gets a revolver into his hand.

Remarque is no doubt at his best in extended descriptive passages. The minute details he lavishes on the operations at a crematorium are among the most horrifying scenes in concentrationary literature—and not merely by an "outsider." Then, too, he re-creates the bombing of the camp, the burning streets, and the panicked citizens with a wonderfully adroit combination of (never really vindictive) zest and lynx-eyed authority. Some of the scenes are eerily funny: Berger scaring off one of the kapo s by convincing him that in touching him the kapo has contracted cadaverine poisoning, or the commandant's panic when a new transport threatens to swamp the camp. The failure of the book ultimately lies in Remarque's stylistic gaffes and his feeble character definitions. Comments that are intended to shock too often sound so smart-alecky that they leave an acid aftertaste: "the camps in Germany had become rather humane … One only gassed, clubbed and shot, or simply worked people insensible and then left them to starve"; " … the commandant was particularly proud [that the camp] had no gas chambers. In Mellern, he liked to explain, one died a natural death." Sentences like these display an embarrassing insensitivity. Ditto Remarque's tone deafness in orchestrating his conceits: "The tension escaped from her like gas from a balloon"; "Impotence plunged over him like night."

In his foreword to the first edition Remarque tried to vouch for the authenticity of his people by citing his sources: anybody familiar with the material would recognize in the commandmant's love for rabbits Heinrich Himmler's love for rabbits; in the electrically lit skull that lights up the bunk senior's room the human lamp shades in Buchenwald (and elsewhere). But surely creative fiction is not made of such mummery. In describing the camp personnel, Remarque notes, he tried to explore the ways in which they became the way they became. But except for a perfunctory comment that X grew up idolizing Y and that Z, who could not live on his wages as a postal clerk, "now [had] something," Remarque's attempts languish in the void. Here comparison with the figures in a novel like Heinrich Böll 's Adam, Where Art Thou? comes to mind. In a book one-fourth as long as Remarque's, Böll, by sketching their antecedents in a few pages, shows the reader why, given their past, Bressen shams his wound, Greck dies in his own excrement, and Ilona Kartök chooses to be baptized. The central female figure in Adam, Ilona is far more complex than the one female figure in Spark of Life, Berger's young woman. As the novel ends, these two take their solitary way from the inferno. But it is Berger who has the last word. The few surviving inmates are dispersing, and one of them sadly comments on their dispersion:

" … we shouldn't lose sight of one another like this."
"Oh, yes," said Berger. "We should."

—Edgar Rosenberg

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Spark of Life (Der Funke Leben)

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