“…during the hours we were killed, the world was a busy place. Girls in bikinis were barred from a Commonwealth summit in Australia to respect “religious and cultural sensibilities”. An institute in Chicago revealed that a 33-year-old American woman had conceived a baby girl “scientifically selected” to ensure she was free of Alzheimer’s.Reading this made me think of a passage from the late William Styron’s celebrated novel Sophie’s Choice. I read that book nearly 15 years ago, but this bit has stayed with me. Background: the narrator, a young man named Stingo living in Brooklyn, has become friends with a Polish Catholic woman named Sophie, a concentration camp survivor. Stingo – and we – learn about the details of Sophie’s experiences in layers, leading up to the climactic revelation that gives the book its title.
Closer home, the nation celebrated Pandit Ravi Shankar’s third Grammy and the nomination of a Hindi film [Lagaan] for the 74th Academy Awards…Work continued on the four-lane highways of our Prime Minister’s dream, on sealing the glass atrium of the new mall. The point we are trying to make is this: our killing was certainly not the end of the world. Because elsewhere there was fun, there was frolic, there was the promise of a better future.”
Around halfway through the novel, Stingo is reflecting on George Steiner’s thoughts about “the two orders of simultaneous experience” – the phenomenon that even while the worst horrors are being perpetrated on some people, in other parts of the world (or just a short distance away) at exactly the same time others are merrily carrying on with the daily bustle of life.
“One of the things I cannot grasp,” Steiner writes, “is the time relation.” Steiner has just quoted descriptions of the brutal deaths of two Jews at the Treblinka extermination camp. “Precisely at the same hour in which Mehring and Langner were being done to death, the overwhelming plurality of human beings, two miles away on the Polish farms, five thousand miles away in New York, were sleeping or eating or going to a film or making love or worrying about the dentist. This is where my imagination baulks. The two orders of simultaneous experience are so different, so irreconciliable to any common norm of human values, their coexistence is so hideous a paradox, that I puzzle over time. Are there, as science fiction and Gnostic speculation imply, different species of time in the same world, ‘good time’ and enveloping folds of ‘inhuman time’, in which men fall into the hands of the living damnation?”Stingo relates these observations to his own life, and Sophie’s; on a certain day in April 1943, he realises, when Sophie first entered the living hell of Auschwitz, he himself was busy gorging on bananas on a lovely spring morning in Raleigh, North Carolina, because he wanted to put on some weight before the physical examination for entrance into the Marine Corps. “On that day I had not heard of Auschwitz, nor of any concentration camp, nor of the mass destruction of the European Jews, nor even much about the Nazis.”
Note: Finished Jha’s book yesterday and thought it was outstanding: it’s a phantasmagoric story built around the terrible real-life events of those days, and he’s done it with both imagination and empathy. Am writing a full review but will only be able to post it after a few days, because it’s part of a long piece for The Hindu’s literary supplement and I’ll have to wait until it appears in print. Meanwhile, see this column Jha wrote in May 2002 – it was the seed of the book.