In 1949 Theodor Adorno famously said that “To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” How, Adorno seemed to be asking, could existing forms of artistic representation be expected to convey something so aberrant, so distant from normal human behavior? Adorno’s comment thus represents a challenge to artists who seek to present the horror of the Holocaust in general and of Auschwitz in particular: to do so, they must move beyond traditional modes of representation and create new structures and forms.
A daunting task, to be sure, but Adorno’s challenge has been fully met by, among others, Primo Levi and W.G. Sebald. In The Periodic Table, a series of interconnected stories, Primo Levi uses the chemical elements of the Periodic Table to structure his memories about the experiences of life in the Nazi concentration camps. Forsaking conventional storytelling techniques, Levi turns instead to scientific discourse—especially its taxonomy of individuation and quantification—in order to contain, control, and ultimately bring forth the truth of an experience incompatible with the traditional modes available to him.
The German author W.G. Sebald, on the other hand, melded his fictional narratives–often of World War II and its consequences for the individual—with documentary elements, including photography. There is an important interplay between these two modes—one that forces the reader to question both the believability of Sebald’s narratives and the veracity and factuality of his photographs. Sebald beautifully manipulates this tension between fiction and history to make the emotional impact of his haunting stories of loss and exile more forceful.
In The Druggist of Auschwitz, the Romanian author Dieter Schlesak tells the story of Victor Capesius, the apothecary at Auschwitz during its most active period as a Nazi death camp. Like Levi, Schlesak interweaves detached, journalistic points of view with fiction, and like Sebald, he melds elements of conventional narrative with photographs and other kinds of images. Schlesak shifts between The Druggist of Auschwitz’s fictional story (the reminiscences of Adam Salmen), actual testimony from the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials, and interviews with Auschwitz survivors, guards, and administrators—including Dr. and Mrs. Capesius—that were conducted by the author himself.
In their books, both Levi and Sebald made clear that the subjective point of view was wholly inadequate to the task of capturing the horror of even the most personal experiences of the Holocaust. So the former sought out the discourse of chemistry and the sciences more generally, while the latter gravitated to photography, a form more indebted to reality, if only superficially. Like them, Schlesak was able to compensate for fiction’s poverty by using journalism and oral history. In this way, The Druggist of Auschwitz responds to Adorno’s challenge and succeeds, remarkably, at saying the unsayable.
Jesse Coleman is an associate editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.