Ian MacMillan’s new novel dares to go where perhaps no novel should

The Boston Phoenix

March 25 — April 1, 1999

Holocaust fiction

by Adam Kirsch

  • VILLAGE OF A MILLION SPIRITS: A NOVEL OF THE TREBLINKA UPRISING, by Ian MacMillan. Steerforth, 257 pages, $24.

The holocaust is an irresistible subject for fiction; like a wound only recently scabbed over, it keeps drawing our sickened attention. Its paradox — how could a nation that in so many ways epitomized Western civilization commit acts that that civilization finds literally unthinkable? — demands repeated explanations precisely because it can never be explained. And yet, at the same time, the Holocaust is an impossible subject for fiction. For fiction, like any art, enjoys an essential irresponsibility, a freedom that comes from being aesthetically rather than ethically committed. And when a writer tries to create aesthetic pleasure out of the ethically atrocious, he comes close to blasphemy.

Ian MacMillan’s novel raises this dilemma once again, in especially acute form. For MacMillan is not, like Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel or other classic Holocaust novelists, a survivor; his story about life at the Treblinka concentration camp is not remembered, but invented. And it claims fiction’s universal passport, entering even the parts of the camp that most writers would find unrepresentable. Indeed, the book’s second chapter is a precise and vivid account of a young man’s riding a train to the camp, disembarking, entering the gas chamber, and dying; we never see him again. The gas chamber, the modern symbol of utmost evil, is for MacMillan another fact that must be described.

As the subtitle suggests, the novel is draped over a historical event, a small and futile revolt that took place in Treblinka in August 1943, just before the camp was to be dismantled. MacMillan alternates between this uprising — as seen from the outside by Magda, a young Polish woman who goes into labor as it takes place — and the year leading up to it, primarily as seen by three inmates of the camp: Janusz Siedlecki, a half-Jewish prisoner; Anatoly, a slow-witted Ukrainian guard; and Joachim Voss, a squeamish, alcoholic German officer. The bulk of the novel is not about the uprising, but about daily life in the camp: indeed, the dailiness of life at Treblinka is MacMillan’s point. For what he most wants to communicate is the way that the camp’s routine and isolation made the unbelievable quite ordinary. The real lesson of the Holocaust, he implies, is how easily we accommodate ourselves to evil.

This point is, of course, an important and true one. What disturbs about MacMillan’s novel is not its moral message — and not the expected scenes where a character tries to visualize the number one million in order to make sense of the number of dead, or where the Nazis play Mozart as Jews listen — but its purposeful sensualism. MacMillan describes everything, in graphic detail. A woman’s water breaking:

She rubs it between her thumb and fingers, her hands shaking. It is a clear, slippery liquid, not urine.

Being gassed:

He is now breathing rapidly, accepting the harsh, salty taste of the air. It sears his throat and he feels vomit rising.

A pile of corpses being burned:

… he sees one face halfway up the pile, that of a child, begin to sweat … his mouth begins to move, almost as if the dead child is beginning to feel the heat and is starting to writhe in agony.

Carrying a dead body:

Janusz grabs the wrist of the corpse’s left arm and pulls, feeling tendons popping in the shoulder. Then he feels a tearing, so that the skin of the hand begins to pull off, like a glove.

Of course, this sensualism is itself a moral statement: it says, in effect, that the horror of Treblinka destroys the syntax of narrative, so that the only thing left is the stuttering “and … and … and” of sense impressions. MacMillan himself makes this point when he writes, about Janusz’s thoughts of the dead: “There is no qualitative difference to these observations. It might just as well be a list of odd facts of the sort that you could find in a science book.”

This is true, but MacMillan does not realize the implications for his own novel. Describing everything closely, precisely, graphically, still does not drive home the truth of the Holocaust. In fact, it may do the opposite: acts and sights so unbearable, unable to be admitted to the mind as truth, take on the qualities of fable, or worse, of movie violence. It is not that we deny their factual status, but that we cannot feel them in the way that we feel our own experiences. And this reduces us to the level of voyeurs, looking on as scenes of torture are enacted for our aesthetic, or even sensual, pleasure. Next to this central problem — the way that fiction can make unreal what should be most real — it is almost beside the point to judge whether the novel is well written or well plotted. I cannot help but feel that, in this case, MacMillan has tried to do something that fiction cannot, and should not, do.

Adam Kirsch is the literary assistant for the New Republic.