By design, the pieces published by Marguerite Duras within The War: A Memoir do not coalesce into a continuous narrative. Authorial notes precede and separate the pieces, labeling some as imaginary literature, some as true stories with the names changed, and asserting that the first piece, “The War”—which gives its title to the collection—is a diary that has been recently found but which the author does not remember writing. By calling attention to the questionable genre of these pieces, Duras intentionally forces her reader to engage, at some level, in a debate over the relationship between history and fiction. By choosing not to create one coherent fictional narrative, the author absolves herself from responsibility for selecting and featuring one truth about the historical period which she describes from her experience. By suggesting that some of her prose is fictional but that other pages are historical memoirs, the author simultaneously claims the authority of creator and the authority of truth teller.
Intensifying the debate, Duras has grouped together emotionally complex stories that deal with the themes of atrocity, betrayal, pain, fear, and the power of death in connected historical settings: in Paris during German Occupation, during the last weeks of Allied bombing raids over Germany, during the first few weeks after liberation, and during the weeks when concentration camp detainees began returning to Paris. By violating chronology in her ordering of these pieces, and by presenting French as well as German torturers, betrayers, and murderers, Duras denies her reader any single perspective, comfortably distant form the particular evils of World War II. She encourages her reader to ask how one can understand the inhumanity enacted in the systematic murder of seven million Jews among eleven million people killed in World War II. She also encourages her reader to ask how the experience of living in an occupied country, whether resisting or collaborating with the occupiers, affected one’s own behavior toward other people. Through these stories, Duras suggests that humanity, collectively, shares in the crimes of war.
In “The War,” section 1 of this volume, Duras dates the entries in a first-person diary by the month, “April,” and occasionally adds the day; no year appears in the entries for the date. From internal evidence, however, it appears that the events take place mostly in April and May of 1944, with glimpses ahead to August 6, 1945, to November of 1945, and to the summer of 1946. Within the pages of this diary, the writer records her pain as she hopes for the return of her husband, Robert L., from a German concentration camp. Her vivid imagination pictures his death in various scenarios, and her vivid descriptions make his physical condition, on his return, almost palpable. Nearly dead, he does return to Paris, and he is slowly, painfully, returned to life. Some time after his departure and before his return, the writer fell in love with another man; her affiliation with her husband is part of her past and part of her identity. She will remain obsessed with his survival from the concentration camp.
As that story unfolds in the diary entries, the narrator includes brief stories and allusions that suggest the relatedness of ethical perspectives on the war’s tragedy. The skin of her husband, who was in a state of near starvation, was rubbed off his bony joints—just as, she remembers, the skin was rubbed off the elbow joints of a seventeen-year-old French Jewish girl, a concentration-camp victim of surgeons who had removed her reproductive organs. The husband mourns the death of his young sister, also taken to a concentration camp, who survived the liberation, but in such bad physical shape that she died on Armistice Day. The diarist notes that the sister was sent to the same concentration camp as a neighbor, Madame Katz’s daughter, deported as a Jew. By this juxtaposition, Duras affirms that the suffering of political and of Jewish deportees is comparable. Madame Katz learns of her daughter’s death many months afterward, just as Robert learns of his sister’s death much later and as, the diarist thinks, the unknown mother of a sixteen-year-old German soldier will learn of her son’s death. By focusing on the pain of individuals, both those who died and those who survived, the diarist conveys the intense personal suffering caused by the war, insisting on seeing connections across national and ethnic lines.
The diarist writes with a knowledge of events that came later than April and May, 1944, and her narration is inevitably influenced by retrospection. Her personal anger about Robert L.’s pain is shaped by her knowledge that Charles de Gaulle’s political priorities in the North African campaign delayed the liberation of people in the concentration camps. She is indignant that de Gaulle declared a national day of mourning when Franklin Delano Roosevelt died but not one for those who died in concentration camps. She is contemptuous of the political maneuvering that, she believes, delayed the liberation of the concentration camps and caused more deaths. Her irritation at the bureaucrats and volunteers who took no part in the French Resistance but who delayed the release of information about returned camp victims is connected to her contempt for French collaborators. In April, when she was waiting for news of her husband’s release, Parisians were given little information about the Holocaust; when she is writing, after Hiroshima, after August 6, 1945, however, she knows that millions of Jews were slaughtered.
(The entire section is 2295 words.)