W, or the Memory of Childhood (W, Ou, Le Souvenir d'Enfance)
W, OR THE MEMORY OF CHILDHOOD (W, ou, le souvenir d'enfance)
Novel by Georges Pérec, 1975
Within Georges Pérec's corpus, his book W, or the Memory of Childhood (1988; W, ou, le souvenir d'enfance, 1975) is both characteristic in its ingenious patterning of different narratives and unique in its gravity. In W linguistic play and fragmentation, far from being a hermetic literary game, emerges as the only way in which the events that have shaped Pérec's childhood ("the war, the camps," in his deliberately terse summary in chapter 6, "History with a Capital H") can be attested to without being violated.
W is divided into two distinct narrative strands, one "auto-biographical," the other "fictional," that alternate by chapters; if the two terms are placed in quotes it is because the text renders the distinction between autobiography and fiction increasingly tenuous. In the autobiographical strand, printed in standard typesetting, Pérec recounts his fragmentary and faulty memories of his childhood. In the fictional one, printed in italics, a narrator named Gaspard Winckler tells of his voyage to an island off Tierra del Fuego named W, governed by the rules of sport. The W narrative, in fact the fleshing-out of a story Pérec claims to have written as a child, is itself split by an ellipsis (literally three bracketed dots occupying a single page in the middle of the book). On the first side of the ellipsis we learn of how the narrator came to join the voyage; on the other Winckler's story recedes from the narrative, ceding to a coldly impersonal description of the horrors of life for the athlete population of W.
What draws these strands together, apart from their having the same authorial source, is their shared status as traces of a memory that refuses to be told directly. In one of the chapters taking up Pérec's faltering memoir of childhood, he expresses his paradoxical condition as a writer: "I do not know whether I have anything to say, I know that I am saying nothing; I do not know if what I might have to say is unsaid because it is unsayable (the unsayable is not buried inside writing, it is what prompted it in the first place); I know that what I say is blank, is neutral, is a sign, once and for all, of a once-and-for-all annihilation." What does Pérec mean when he speaks of the unsayable prompting writing? The memoir he writes consists of little more than fleeting images of a childhood under the protection of his aunt's non-Jewish family after his parents' deportation to the death camps. So vulnerable to error and distortion are these images that Pérec is consistently appending corrective footnotes (which, implicitly, might themselves be implicitly erroneous) to the original version.
The reason these images of childhood are impossible to set down with any certainty is that their source is, in Pérec's term "the unsayable," the traumatic memory of the camps and his parents' death. The author's fervent desire to clarify these memories is doomed to failure because their meaning consists in their very resistance to clarification or narration; they are the record of an effort to tell what cannot be told, hence Pérec's description of them as "a sign … of a once-and-for-all annihilation." Every attempt to tell the story of his childhood "annihilates" itself.
The other sign of this "annihilation" is the W narrative itself. As the vicious and arbitrary brutality of the island's regime comes into focus, so does its similarity to the world of the death camps. The words "FORTIUS ALTIUS CITIUS" emblazoned on the arches of the athletes' villages irresistibly evoke the "ARBEIT MACHT FREI" motto that stood over the gates to the Nazi concentration camps. The sadistic, arbitrary, and unpredictable laws of the competitive events as well as of everyday life on the island provoke further comparisons. Naked women are chased around the track by sprinters and raped publicly once caught. Proper names are discarded not for numbers but for the names of their predecessors in competition. Most redolent of survivor testimony, however, is the relentless and arbitrary changing of the law that disables the athletes' attempts to know and obey it: "The Law must be known by all, but the Law cannot be known." This is why there is no way of explaining life on the island to the novice athlete, for he lacks the fundamental categories to comprehend it; he must learn to absorb horror not as an unpleasant interruption of daily life but as its very texture: "But wherever you turn your eyes, that's what you will see, you will not see anything else, and that is the only thing that will turn out to be true." Pérec as memoirist and Winckler as witness thus share the same dilemma: They tell of what disables their ability to tell.
Indeed, the W narrative and Pérec's memoir perpetually echo one another. Just as the latter seems dispossessed of his power to remember in the very act of remembering, the narrator of the W story, once he shifts from the voyage to the island itself, seems unable any longer to speak in his own name. We lose any hint of Winckler's place in the story—neither the progress of his search for the missing deaf-blind boy nor his personal experience on the island are alluded to. Just as Pérec's attempt to recover the memory of his traumatized childhood only highlights its irrecoverable loss, so Winckler's testimony to the world of W strips him of his ability to speak in anything but an absolutely "blank," "neutral" tone.
Pérec's book, then, is one of the most compelling attempts in Holocaust literature to come to terms with the horror not by direct description or narration but by acknowledging and exploring the impossibility of either.