Monday, 6 September 2010

Austerlitz and the power of memory

When I was studying in Liège, southern Belgium, for a year, my younger sister came to visit and a friend suggested we drive up to Maastricht, Holland, for the day. What I didn't realise was that he intended to stop at the site of a former concentration camp on the way. I'm not sure if my sister has ever forgiven me, she probably still has nightmares about the trip.

WG Sebald's remarkable Austerlitz, which was published in 2001, begins with the German emigré to East Anglia adrift in Belgium. I've written before about English-language writers' view of the Low Country but Austerlitz features many landmarks that locals and visitors will recognise: Antwerp's magnificent Centraal Station, from which Sebald draws a compelling line to Belgium's dark colonial past, and the hideous, massive block that is the Palais de Justice overlooking Brussels, 'the largest accumulation of stone blocks anywhere in Europe'.

The opening narrative includes a visit to Fort Breendonk, a Nazi penal camp that has been preserved as a memorial. It is near where my grandfather lives. 'The passenger train I boarded… took a good half-hour to travel the short distance to Mechelen, where a bus runs from the station to the small town of Willebroek.' I've taken this same bus, but never to Fort Breendonk as I have little wish to repeat the experience of that afternoon in Holland.

The fort's shape and the formation of battlements is a theme of Austerlitz; as the narrator descends further, a darkness spreads over him: 'When I look back at the crab-like plan of Breendonk… the darkness does not lift but becomes yet heavier as I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed.' It is for this reason we preserve, and visit, these places: when imagination fails us.

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