W, or the Memory of Childhood
“Georges Perec,” the narrator of this fictional autobiography, begins his reminiscences with the disconcerting admission that he remembers almost nothing of his early life as a Jew in Nazi-occupied France. “Up to my twelfth year or thereabouts, my story comes to barely a couple of lines: I lost my father at four, my mother at six; I spent the war in various boarding houses at Villard-de-Lans.” In a way, he says, he was excluded from the need for a personal history by History with a capital H: The bare facts of the war served to answer any questions put to him.
When, in his thirties, Perec tries to reconstruct the events of his childhood, the best he can do is to recall details of an elaborate fantasy world that he created for himself at the time. In his imagination he would escape to an uncharted island off Tierra del Fuego known simply as W (or double-ve in the original French, a pun on the phrase “double life”). W was home to a noble culture that valued athletic prowess above all else. Life there was one glorious Olympiad.
Perec devotes alternating chapters of the book to his real life and to the make-believe world of W. He finds that as he mentally re-creates W, more and more fragments of his wartime experience emerge from his subconscious. Nevertheless, the “big picture” never quite comes into focus. What happened to him and his family remains a mystery. Perec’s memory of W, on the other hand, becomes increasingly detailed and precise. The more he remembers, the more ominous the island seems, until we realize that W is in fact a mirror image of the malevolent regime that murdered his parents. Near the end of the book, Perec finally sees the “athletes” for what they are: desperate, half-starved creatures staggering around the track in striped prison garb. In fact, they are inmates in a vast concentration camp, victims of “this huge machine, each cog of which contributes with implacable efficiency to the systematic annihilation of men.”
The late Georges Perec is best known as the author of LIFE, A USER’S MANUAL, one of the true masterpieces of postmodern literature. W, OR THE MEMORY OF CHILDHOOD is a very different but equally remarkable novel that investigates the worldwide refusal to face the Holocaust when it was in progress and the continued unwillingness to remember it today. This deceptively simple book is destined to become a classic.