(University College London)

Good People, Capitalist Networks and Impossible Flights“

In this paper I consider how Nir Baram and Olga Tokarczuk explore complicity and resistance, and the significance of a shift they make away from fiction in their approach to those themes.

The exploration of ethical compromise, how people become enmeshed in systems that they oppose and how they interpret their actions to themselves and others is at the heart of Baram’s Good People (2010). It is a historical novel about two brilliant young people becoming involved with the National Socialist and Stalinist regimes, but Baram is keen to emphasize the novel’s contemporary relevance. He values the ways in which readers have sought to interpret their own context through the novel’s themes. Baram’s interest in complicity and narrative continues in his subsequent novel, World Shadow (2013), which focusses on the all-dominating reach of capitalism. And in A Land Without Borders (2016), Baram turns away from fiction to consider complicity in relation to the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In all these works, Baram considers the responsibility of writers in fuelling discourses that contribute to violence and atrocity. Telling a good story is not aligned in his work with a positive outcome. On the contrary, he explores how central and effective it is for justifications of individual and institutional actions, state oppression and violence. Fiction’s value lies in its ability to offer a new perspective, to elicit ambivalent emotional responses, challenge the reader’s own complacency and encourage her to think about her own context. But to look to fiction as offering an expert view or to invest it with the potential for redemption, is to fall prey to the trap of nostalgia. By turning to non-fiction, he shifts from the realm of ethics, in which the very concepts of what determines the good is explored, to making a moral intervention, directing questions of complicity, personal responsibility and the possibility of protest to himself, Israelis and Palestinians. Baram places himself at the centre of his interrogation about complicity and the possibility of resistance.

Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009) uses the form of a parody whodunit to consider the place of righteous anger in response to society’s complicity with the crime of eating meat and its violence against animals and the environment. The novel’s comedy, which offers the fantasy of radical revolt, nevertheless disguises the final futility of the novel, with Duszejko’s flight resulting in isolation from society and intensified solipsism. Flight and isolation are central themes in Tokarczuk’s Flights, a less obviously political text, but one that shares many of the concerns of Drive Your Plow, not least the privileging of types of knowledge that evade analytic reason and the relationship of knowledge and the control of nature. Avoiding a coherent narrative, with 116 titled prose sections of varying length and twelve reproductions of maps, Tokarczuk sees her approach as differing from a ‘real’ writer, because it depicts life as fragmentary, thereby forbidding conclusions as to the whole. Such a deviation from the norm, like the freaks that her narrator is interested in, is where the truth of being can be found. Yet in Tokarczuk’s shift into apparently radical polyphony, the freedom from the constraints of plot is replaced by constellations of privileged meaning that impose their own rigidity on the reading experience. Freedom from the networked world is temporary and the privilege of wealth.


Who are you? Complicity and the second person in Yishai Sarid’s The Memory Monster (2017) and Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body (2018)“

This paper considers the significance of the second person address for exploring different types of complicity. In The Memory Monster, the narrator’s report to the Chairman of the Board of Yad Vashem assumes a conventional ‚you‘, in that the addressee is evidently a separate individual. Although the main body of the novel is the narrator’s account of his career as a tour guide at Nazi extermination camps and of his increasingly self-destructive obsession with Holocaust memory, the ‚you‘ raises the question of wider complicity. At a personal level it raises the question of the Chairman’s duty of care to an employee who is increasingly affected by the history of the genocide. By directing the report to the Chairman of Yad Vashem, the novel questions institutional complicity in memorial practices that have become central to contemporary Israeli national identity, and that raise uncomfortable questions about anti-Arab hate speech. Finally, the ‚you‘ exceeds its designated addressee to ask the reader about their relationship to Holocaust memory. This Mournable Body adopts a more radical form of address, in which the narrator, protagonist and narratee seem to be the same. Here the addressee is Tambudzai Sigauke, addressing herself in the present tense throughout. This undermines any attempt to ascribe a temporal distance to the implied ‚I‘ and the ‚you‘; a present Tambu speaking to her past self from a position of privileged knowledge. Rather, the ‚you‘ points to a split within the subject, which creates an ambivalent effect of both intimacy and distance. The reader assumes a type of double vision of interior and exterior, through which Tambo’s position as victim of colonial, anti-colonial and post-colonial violence and perpetrator of violence is explored. The duality of victimhood and complicity is formally inscribed in second person address, which also insists on the confluence of empathy and judgement.  



Relevant Publications

Bird, Stephanie. 2019. “Perpetrators in Literature”. In S. Knittel and Z. Goldberg (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Perpetrator Studies. New York and London.

―. 2018. “Nazis Disguised as Jews and Israel’s Pursuit of Justice: The Eichmann Trial and the Kapo Trials in Robert Shaw’s The Man in the Glass Booth and Emanuel Litvinoff’s Falls the Shadow”. Holocaust Studies 24.4: 466-487.

―. 2016. Comedy and Trauma in Austria and Germany after 1945: The Inner Side of Mourning. Oxford: Legenda.