Why does a novel about Hitler fail, while one about Rwanda triumphs? It's truth to fiction, rather than history, that countsby Jason Cowley / January 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
A Sunday at the pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemanche Siegfried by Harry Mulisch
In his latest novel, Elizabeth Costello, JM Coetzee turns the English-born writer Paul West into a fictional character. West, who lives and works in America, exists; he is the author of The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, a little-known novel about the lives and gruesome deaths of the aristocratic German officers who failed in their attempt to assassinate Hitler in July 1944. In his novel, West imagines what happened to the men following their capture. He details the humiliation and pain of their torture and of the last hours before their execution. The pages of his novel are soaked in the blood of these unlucky men. Can anyone, asks Coetzee’s fictional alter ego, Elizabeth Costello, wander as deep as West does into the Nazi forest of horrors and emerge unscathed?
Later, Costello, who is a well-known writer but one exhausted by her fame and by the tawdry demands of the writing life, meets West at a conference in Amsterdam, where she is to give a paper on him and his novel, The Very Rich Hours, which she thinks is “obscene.” She observes him with scorn and no little mockery.
Reading Elizabeth Costello, one wonders how Paul West must feel about having his life appropriated in this way? How does it feel to become a character in a novel, your autonomy stolen so that you become a puppet of authorial will? What is Coetzee up to? Is he punishing West for daring to represent the lives of real people in fiction, turning their private suffering into a pornography of misery? Or is the austere Nobel laureate warning us that there are events in life, such as the violent death of the German plotters, which must never be violated or turned into fiction?
These are the kinds of questions that must have occurred to both Gil Courtemanche and Harry Mulisch during the writing of, respectively, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali and Siegfried. For both novels feature real people and actual historical events, but they are, at the same time, unapologetic works of fiction and thus works of selection and imagination and embellishment. They are the latest examples of that fashionable genre, history-as-fiction. Of the two novels, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, which is set in Rwanda during the genocide of 1994,…