This morning I had cause to remember once again that much quoted line (by Theodor Adorno) that ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. The title of the article I was reading in the Independent Blogs – ‘Poetry After Auschwitz?‘ referenced that statement, and was dedicated to the poetry of Tadeusz Różewicz
In my ignorance, I did not know that Rozewicz is Poland’s most celebrated living author, a Nobel prize nominee and considered by many as “one of the great European poets of the 20th century. Despite my dedication to literature in translation, I also find myself a victim of my own specialization – with Poland not included in my chosen area of S E Europe. Luckily, Stork Press have started to remedy that, with their English-language publications of Rozewicz and other neglected Polish writers.
The shadows of the Holocaust still lie heavily over us, nearly 70 years on, especially in the world of literature. But my personal experience with the horrors of war came in the 1990s, when I was working with refugees from war in Bosnia, many of them from soon-to-be sites of atrocities, like Srebrenica and Sarajevo. And so, for me, the question becomes whether it is possible for anything beautiful and pure – in the literary sense – can come out of Bosnia?
And so it is with such pride and relief that I can be involved in translating and publishing Bosnian writers like Selvedin Avdić, who evokes the horror of mass murders and unsolved disappearances not with blood and gore, but with the shifty workings of paranormal activities in his disturbing book, Seven Terrors; and Alma Lazarevska, whose tender and revealing set of stories – Death in the Museum of Modern Art, avoid the easy traps of politics and blame in order to reveal a world full of incidents and worries so similar to our own, and yet always under the shadow of the snipers and the bombs which we know are out there and who occasionally impinge on the story in shocking ways.
The human desire to understand terror, to probe the minds of the victims and the perpetrators and – perhaps more importantly – to allow the mind to convert the horrors of historical events into the stuff of memory, is an essential one in the process of living, and indeed forgiving. The process of writing down – recording, shading and refining – itself being a kind of therapy, a way to allow one part of the brain to process the experience and allow it a proper place in our recollection and understanding. It seems, therefore, that far from being a betrayal of our humanity (as indicated in Adorno’s quote), it is an imperative action; indeed, an affirmative action by the soul in desperation to save itself.
Without poetry, without prose, we are dumb animals at the gates of the abattoir.
The Romania poet, Paul Celan (who witnessed the Shoah (The Holocaust) first hand, and which provided him with defining forces in his poetry and his use of language) said of language after Auschwitz that:
”Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me no words for what was happening, but went through it. Went through and could resurface, ‘enriched’ by it all.”