How is the line between truth and fiction obscured in W.G. Sebald's novel The Emigrants?

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W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants (originally published in German as Die Ausgewanderten) is a collection of narratives first published in 1992 and in English translation by Michael Hulse in 1996. The narrator recounts the lives of four main characters, elderly German/Jewish exiles whose lives are haunted by the shadow of the Holocaust.

This book is noted for its combination of documentary-like prose that later takes on an eerie, dream-like quality. Text blends with photographs, maps, diary entries, and drawings that add to the realism of the account, giving it the feel of a scrapbook or photo album. The effect of historical authenticity relates to one of the novel’s central themes—the intersection of history and memory.

Sebald claimed that the photographs and documents in his books were “what you would describe as authentic,” a statement that itself blurs the line of historical truth with the qualifier “what you would describe as.” The relationship between the text and photographs further blurs this line, tossing the reader back and forth between truth and fiction.

This work brings up more questions than it answers, leading the reader to think about the fluid nature of personal and historical memory. At the intersection of fact and fiction, what matters is not necessarily what is real but what is true.

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