Sentences — December 29, 2008, 11:44 am

Animated Treacle

“I wanted to bring happiness to people, to remind them not to hate, but to love and tolerate all people,” Herman Rosenblat is quoted as saying in yesterday’s New York Times. Rosenblat is the author of a memoir called Angel at the Fence that was to have appeared this coming February but now won’t be published at all, for the recently routine reason that he has admitted to having made up significant parts of his supposedly true story.

If the upshot of the improvements on fact that James Frey introduced into his own memoir were to make the author seem tougher, harder, and more sadistically vandalized by fate than he had been, Rosenblat’s inventions, as they have been reported, seem designed to soften the cruel facts of the world through unlikely fictions passed off as life. As described in the Times, Rosenblat

said he first met his wife while he was a child imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp and she, disguised as a Christian farm girl, tossed apples over the camp’s fence to him. He said they met again on a blind date 12 years after the end of war in Coney Island and married. The couple celebrated their 50th anniversary this year.

Rosenblat is indeed a survivor of Buchenwald, where he was taken as a child. There was, however, no such meeting. The story of the apples has been proven a pure invention, a cobbling together of improbabilities and clichés. Kenneth Waltzer, director of Jewish studies at Michigan State University, uncovered the hoax:

In his research of maps drawn by ex-prisoners, Dr. Waltzer learned that the section of Schlieben where Mr. Rosenblat was housed had fences facing other sections of the camp and only one fence—on the south—facing the outside world. That fence was adjacent to the camp’s SS barracks and the SS men there would have been able to spot a boy regularly speaking to a girl on the other side of the fence, Dr. Waltzer said. Moreover, the fence was electrified and civilians outside the camp were forbidden to walk along the road that bordered the fence.

This might remind us of that obscene farce about which I wrote recently, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Not a memoir, but an offensive fiction, one that trafficked in the improbability of a Jewish boy in Auschwitz playing chess against a non-Jewish child who sits across from him, undiscovered, at the fence of the death camp. As I wrote at the time:

That the novel in question might justify such sleight of hand as a means by which a child might first imagine the unimaginable is exemplary of the most condescending and corrupt ideas of what fiction is. Fiction is not meant to make difficult facts less disturbing. Rather, as David Foster Wallace said in an interview, fiction is more properly meant to “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” An idea like the one that animates Boyne’s novel can only comfort the comfortable.

Taking Rosenblat at his word that he “wanted to bring happiness to people,” one is given to ask of oneself if we as adults are indeed comforted by fairy tales. Of course we are. The apple is an old feature of tales of good and evil, whether your holy books are Old Testaments or animated treacle. This latest obscenity is obviously pathetic, but does allow us to ask once again just what we expect of memoir. Facts? I hope not. Memoir is always fiction, always falsification, always distorted and compromised by our muddled brains and hearts.

That, after all, can be what makes a memoir interesting–if an author is honest enough to embrace that undependability. A memoir that traffics in its own certainty can only be rude, crude, abject. The question then, is only one of the degree. Today’s news is pretty crude.

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I sat in a taxi with Emma and her son, Stak, all three bodies muscled into the rear seat, and the boy checked the driver’s I.D. and immediately began to speak to the man in an unrecognizable language.

I conferred quietly with Emma, who said he was studying Pashto, privately, in his spare time. Afghani, she said, to enlighten me further.

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