Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Austerlitz is a novel about a man's rediscovery of his roots, his past, and himself. The title character, Jacques Austerlitz, is a man born in Central Europe to Jewish parents and, as the persecution of the Jewish population is underway, is able to escape the Holocaust as a small child when his mother manages to send him as part of a Kindertransport (transport of children) by train and ferry to the U.K. He is raised in Wales by foster parents and does not learn the full story of his childhood and parents until he is an adult.
A main point of the story is the way trauma affects people and causes them to bury, to fail to remember, or to transform the past. Austerlitz has, all along, at least a semi-conscious memory of his past, but it is not until he hears a conversation between strangers about the time and place of his own roots that he deliberately seeks out his starting point in life, returning to Prague, the city of his birth, and re-connecting with Vera, the woman who was his nanny when he was a four-year-old. The gradual rediscovery of his early childhood, in which the facts about himself and his parents become more and more explicit, is his uncovering of a fundamental truth not only about himself, but about human nature and the horrors people are capable of inflicting upon others. But it's also in some way emblematic of a process we all go through in life, in coming to terms with ourselves and with the outside world, and in understanding the nature of reality.
Austerlitz is a teacher, a professor of art history at a London university. His entire life, before he undertakes his journey as an adult to his childhood home, has focused on intellectual matters and on details of historical fact, of the design of buildings, of the details of planning that went into man's architectural and artistic achievements. As we read further and further in the book, arguably much of his obsession with detail can be seen as a redirecting of his mental process, perhaps to avoid the traumatic elements that formed his early life. It is trauma that both creates and then, in some sense, takes apart Austerlitz's life as he delves deeper into the past, and the fate of his parents as victims of the Holocaust is revealed to him. The novel's ultimate message is one of hope, but it's also one in which we are shown that the character, the inner being of all of us, is shaped and reshaped by what is hidden from us, buried in the subconscious. Though Austerlitz's parents suffered the worst fate, they, and Austerlitz himself, are symbols of the universal human condition.