Reading Piotr Szewc’s Annihilation

Context N°19

by Martin Riker

In the second half of the twentieth century, the literature of the Holocaust developed a tradition of indirection, wherein attention shifted from the reality of the Holocaust to the reality of our cultural memory of it. Taking for granted the horrific factness of the event, novelists turned to something more immediate—the ways the Holocaust has shaped our sense of self, or the strategies by which humans continue to make sense of both the event and its repercussions. The great novels of this tradition of indirection, by authors such as W. G. Sebald, Thomas Bernhard, Georges Perec, and David Grossman, approach the past with particular attention to the mechanisms by which history comes to us—the changing structures of both official and personal memory—so as to bare history’s narrative devices, to expose its received ideas, and ultimately to understand the Holocaust as an irreconcilable presence rather than as mythic, unchanging, and remote.

Polish writer Piotr Szewc’s 1987 novel Annihilation is a small masterpiece of this tradition, not only for how indirect it is (it is set prior to World War II and does not mention the Holocaust by name at all), but also because the fictional world Szewc creates—a world of details, of small observations and whimsical asides—involves the reader in a different (non-narrative) type of historical accounting. In this way, the novel offers an alternative to the official narrative of events and causes by which the past most often comes to us. History, in the context of Annihilation, is revealed to be a story that is badly told, one that creates its own hierarchy of events and consequences then pretends that this hierarchy is not invented at all, but is, instead, reality. But reality—Annihilation seems to tell us—is everything that we experience. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrible, reality is always, if nothing else, utterly mundane. And it is in recognizing the particularity of this mundane experience that we do honor to it.

To all appearances, Annihilation is a very simple book, quiet and charming. Its most immediately remarkable aspect—the thing the reader notices right away—is that it is composed almost entirely of details. Set in 1934, it recreates, from morning to night, a single July day in a town modeled on the eastern Polish city of Zamosc, which prior to World War II was a center of Jewish culture. In 1942, Zamosc was declared the “First Resettlement Area” by the Germans, after which “ethnic cleansing” began and tens of thousands of the city’s inhabitants were either killed or shipped to extermination camps. What is surprising about Annihilation is that, with the exception of the title and some indirect foreshadowing, none of this destruction is found in its pages. The text itself, its surface, maintains a tone of tenderness and unhurried observation, concerned not with the future but only with its present ambition to “chronicle the events in the Book of the Day,” of which everyone and everything in the town is a part. Thus the novel’s ambition is not to create a narrative of events and causes (i.e., a history) but rather to perform a massive act of attention, to force the reader, through unabashed insistence on detail, to inhabit a present that is otherwise irretrievably past.

We might ask how a novel composed entirely of details, a novel with almost no plot, nonetheless maintains momentum, creates literary tension, and manages not only to avoid being boring, but to carry considerable emotional weight. In the case of Annihilation, the answer is not by being aggressively subversive: the fictional world Szewc offers is, on the surface at least, familiar and inviting, and more importantly, its readerly satisfactions are immediately available in a way usually associated with realist narrative. Szewc manages to provide this satisfaction by replacing standard devices of narrative (for example, plot) with what we might call devices of attention, which create and satisfy expectations of attention just as narrative works create and satisfy expectations of action. Acts of perception replace narrative action; details, in a sense, stand in for verbs.

This process starts from the first word of the book, which is an unusual use of the pronoun “we”:

We are on Listopadowa, the second street crossing Lwowska. In one of the tiny backyards close to the intersection, Mr. Hershe Baum is standing near the house and feeding pigeons perched on his arm. Here they are called Persian butterflies. Isn’t it a beautiful name? In all likelihood they were brought from Persia. But is that certain? We won’t be able to verify it. Data, documents, and credible explanations are unavailable.

This “we” proves extraordinarily slippery, involving the reader right away in a high level of intimacy—“we” share a single perspective throughout the book—but existing separately as well, a kind of tour guide of the imagination. The narrator occasionally makes reference to the future, to how “we” will look back upon this day, this town, but even these gestures are speculative, looking forward from the particular space and occasion of this past in which “we” exist as a surrogate character, a physical-yet-invisible presence, knowledgeable about the town’s inhabitants but unable to affect daily events. “We” can see into characters’ thoughts but cannot verify most factual information, and are vaguely aware of the future but not explicitly concerned with it. A typical line in Annihilation—“As our eyes follow the cart, the sun, reflected off a window that someone is opening, blinds us”—reinforces the reader’s position inside this shared perspective, which, though physically impossible, is nonetheless extraordinarily intimate, two consciousnesses sharing a single pair of eyes.

The intimacy of “we,” its conflation of the roles of reader, narrator, and character, allows it not only to provide the reader with details of the day—what any narrator could do—but also to ground the reader in the physicality of this town on this day by insisting on specific acts of attention, acts that “we” perform and are repeatedly made aware of as acts. The difference between the sentences “The sky is blue” and “Let us stop and look at the sky, which is blue,” for example, is the difference between an observation and an experience, between information and participation.

Moreover, when the narrator says, “Let us stop and look at the sky,” he also insists on the need for this action, that “we must not miss anything, even the clouds.” Nearly all the functional action in Annihilation is of this sort: explicit acts of attention, of framing perception, that belong to the reader/narrator, i.e., to “us.” There are also characters in the book, they walk places and do things, but in general the events of their lives are given no more importance than any other details of the day (the light reflected by a mirror, a child spitting out a piece of maggoty apple, pigeons landing on the brewery roof). Instead there is a flattening of experience: every aspect of life in the town is treated equally as a detail, and every detail, in turn, carries the immediacy of an action—an act of attention that implicates the reader and that carries “us” along.

In addition to creating a world that calls our attention to the beauty of particulars, Szewc continually reframes the reader’s experience of this world. “Our” role is always shifting: while in one sentence we are noticing the flight patterns of birds above the town, in the next we are analyzing the slipperiness of human perception—and then we are watching birds again. Szewc regularly digresses this way into psychological and philosophical, narrative and non-narrative spaces, including the characters’ pasts; the narrator’s reflections and speculations on memory, history, and time; and an ongoing series of mental “photographs” that imply a future perspective (“we” will look back upon the events of this day) that is nonetheless nowhere made palpable within the book. In such digressive moments, Annihilation performs a kind of juggling act with perspective, moving the reader subtly into and out of the book’s imaginative present without ever ostensibly “leaving” it. This accumulation of perspectives allows Szewc to create meaning on many levels at once, and to maintain a sense that what is happening inside the book is both apart from and connected to the world outside—the world of history but also the world of experience, the reader’s present.

The ongoing movement between the imaginative universe of the book and the world outside prepares the reader for Annihilation‘s central act of literary subterfuge, which is to evoke loss in and around a text that is itself concerned almost exclusively with the immediacy and presence of the world it has created. This is how Annihilation—this book-length act of attention—finally turns into a story of sorts, an elegy created by the juxtaposition of the vibrant world of the book and the horrific fact of the Holocaust. Although the town’s impending destruction is never named, there are images of doom woven throughout, unsettling the overall calm. The only direct reference to the town’s specific fate occurs on the final page, after the sun has gone down and the “Book of the Day” is ending:

The boxcars carry huge logs hewn in the forests of Zwierzyniec—a priority shipment to Lvov. The sparks flying over the cars vanish, die down, leaving not even a faint trace.
That trail of sparks, irretrievably vanishing in our eyes, will shoot up again many more times, though at another place, at another hour, over another train.

At this moment, it is as if a vacuum has been created by the book’s lack of plot, and history is pulled in to fill it, the Holocaust serving as the unwritten end of the book’s present. The imaginative world that we have come to care about suddenly becomes a thing of the past, of historical narrative, and we experience the weight of its loss, an actual displacement (when the reading stops) more immediate than any past-tense recounting of a historical event. The effect is devastating. The trick—for it is a kind of brilliant trick—is that we have not been reading about loss at all, but its opposite. We have not been focused on destruction but have been intimately involved in the creation of something beautiful and particular. Then the reading stops, and history rushes in.

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Selected Works by Piotr Szewc in Translation:

Annihilaton. Trans. Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough. Dalkey Archive Press, 1993. $10.95.

Selected Untranslated Works:

Zmierzchy i poranki [Dusks and Dawns]. Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2000.
Bociany nad powiatem [The Storks over the Poviat]. Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2005.

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