Gotz and Meyer by David Albahari
Our February 2004 Fiction Book of the Month.
In one long unbroken book length paragraph - in some ways reminiscent of WG Sebald, but so many things remind me of Sebald at the moment that I think that it is more likely that Sebald himself references (or, rather, is steeped in) so much other fiction than that so much fiction (as yet) references him - David Albahari's ironic (the tone seems almost Beckettian to me) Gotz and Meyer (the names of the two non-comissioned SS officers whose job it was to drive a truck with an hermetically sealed cab from Serbia's ghetto, one hundred Jews at a time, to a mass grave dumping ground at the border - the journey's exhaust fumes having neatly asphyxiated its human cargo as they drove) shocks, informs, and is deeply troubling. The tone is superbly well handled - and a brave note to strike particular given Albahari's lineage and his personal stake in this story (of which he says a little more in our interview with him) - the irony a handmaiden to the horrific absurdity of Gotz and Meyer themselves. Albahari - called by The Guardian newspaper the Serbian Kafka - seems to be suggesting that it is only with some parallel degree of ironic detachment that Gotz and Meyer would themselves have done what they did. It's a compelling thesis but, perhaps, one that tends to excusing more than damning: Albahari would suggest understanding was his goal in writing the book, and his device of using the first person of a teacher whose students are presented with his discoveries would underscore that reading. This is powerful stuff indeed. "Death is heavy" Albahari says, speaking literally of the weight of the cadavers that had to be dragged from the back of the truck, but referencing the vernacular. It is heavy, man; and a book like this is hugely brave in working through the effect of that profundity in a tone light enough to make the effect of the investigation itself plausible, compelling and utterly readable.
Albahari makes it plain that he cannot enter the minds of Gotz and Meyer but can only suggest possible, maybe likely, reconstructions of what they may have thought and/or of how they experienced what they did. There is something heartbrakingly honest about both how Albahari goes about this task and yet also how opaque Gotz and Meyer remain - they are fully realised yet wholly inscrutable. Human evil - or actions that lead to it or inactions that allow it to flourish - is rarely readily understood and, yet, human inadequacy is our common lot: we are immersed in our own ethical failings but the weakness and wickedness of others can still fascinate. And Albahari is fascinated by - and makes us fascinated with - Gotz and Meyer.