Wednesday, June 27, 2018

What I Read: Rien où poser sa tête (Nowhere to Lay One's Head)

If you're not subscribed to Asymptote's newsletter or following their blog, you're missing out. Their staff are like magical book sprites who leave little gifts of international literature in your RSS feed or email inbox. Rien où poser sa tête was one of those little gifts.

The cover of Francoise Frenkel's "Nowhere to Lay One's Head"
Image courtesy Gallimard

Of course, Nowhere to Lay One's Head turned up in Asymptote thanks to Brigitte Manion's review of the English translation. But since I have a passing familiarity with French, and really should practice a little now and then to keep it up, I opted to read the French original rather than the English or Swedish translations.

As a student, I had a hard time connecting with the books we read about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Fortunately I'm not a psychopath and so I can understand, on an intellectual level, why these books are important. I could then, too. I just resented them for not being better, considering the topic matter. (No, I'm not going to name them, because then I'll get a bunch of HOW COULD YOU NOT LIKE XXXXX in the comments. :P) Now that we're apparently willing to give Nazis the benefit of the doubt, I've been wondering lately: what do I think students should read instead of what I read in school?

I'd argue that Rien où poser sa tête is a good candidate. Trying to convey the horror of what happened through the concentration camps can be a bit much to take in. (Not that it should be forgotten, either.) It's so horrible as to be unreal, unfathomable. But because Frenkel's memoirs handle the slow agony of daily life under the Nazi regime, with rations and visa applications and constant upheaval (including children ripped away from their parents, I wonder if that sounds familiar at all?), it becomes easier to understand how these things were able to come to pass, and how they could easily come to pass again and how they already are again holy fucking shit.

Nowhere to Lay One's Head was saved from obscurity thanks to an incredible stroke of luck. I think we need to take advantage of that luck and get this in front of all of the eyeballs we can. Out of all of the books you're going to see reviewed on blogs and YouTube and wherever else this year, please make Nowhere to Lay One's Head the book you actually follow up on. Get it on Amazon, ask your library to order it, whatever. It's my birthday tomorrow; consider it your birthday present to me.

Plus ça change...

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