Serbian writer David Albahari's new novel is a deeply unnerving tale of obsession and memory, part Holocaust story and part rumination on the incompatibility of history and storytelling. The nameless narrator, a teacher whose family was killed in a Belgrade concentration camp, sets himself the task of reconstructing his family tree, which in turn leads him to the records of the camp at the Jewish Historical Museum in Belgrade. There, among stacks of documents and lists of victims, he discovers Götz and Meyer, the men who drove the truck in which the narrator's family, along with five thousand others, were gassed.
Nothing in Gotz and Meyer is as it seems, though. From Albahari's opening sentences it is clear that the reader is careening down a slippery slope: “Götz and Meyer. Having never seen them, I can only imagine them.” After that initial caveat, it becomes more difficult to tell where the history ends and the imagining begins. The nameless narrator peppers his long and digressive sentences with phrases like “as the documents tell us,” or “apparently,” or “more likely.” His constant hedging, coupled with the fact that the story has no paragraph breaks, gives us the sense of the narrator's neurosis slipping into psychosis, the world becoming darker and less certain.
As the narrator's family tree fills out, his attention shifts to the executioners. Absent any details of Götz or Meyer's lives beyond the fact that they drove the truck (which the narrator reconstructs in painstaking detail), the narrator makes up his own, for instance, that one of them read books and another gave chocolate to the camp's children. To compensate for these small fictions, the narrator never specifies which Nazi possessed which quality, referring to them in tandem as “Götz, or Meyer,” or “Götz, or perhaps it was Meyer.” Eventually, Götz, Meyer, and the narrator become indistinguishable, and the narrator lapses into a consuming obsession with the two men, climaxing in a scene in which the narrator takes his students to the site of the concentration camp where Götz and Meyer worked. There, in a trance-like state, the evidence culled from war archives and newspapers and the fantasies of the narrator's increasingly twitchy mind coalesce into a single narrative. Where the narrator had been obsessed with finding evidence and exposing the truth about Götz and Meyer, now his concern is with imagining their world, submerged in time, a task that requires not evidence, but empathy.
Götz and Meyer takes the Holocaust as its subject, but it's also a lesson in telling stories about the lost past. As the witnesses to that era of European history die off, they leave Albahari's generation (he was born in 1948) to make sense of what could easily be considered humanity's darkest days. Albahari is often compared to the late German writer W.G. Sebald. Both present eccentric characters trying to reconcile themselves with the past, characters where eccentricity gives way to obsession, which gives way to madness. They are students of the Stephen Dedalus school of history, the nightmare from which they are trying to awake.The narrator of Götz and Meyer resembles the nameless narrator of Sebald's Emigrants-both are on an impossible quest to unearth the past. Sebald and Albahari also share a taste for the acerbic, the idiosyncratic, and the darkly humorous. “It isn't easy to show someone that the world, like a sock, has its other side, and that all you need is one skillful twist to switch one side to the other,” says Albahari's narrator. Götz and Meyer is a skillful twist, indeed.
Brendan Hughes is a freelance writer and graduate student at Columbia University's School of the Arts.