Two Lives

I just read Two Lives, Vikram Seth’s holocaust memoir of the life of his great-aunt Henny and great-uncle Shanti. My favorite parts of the book are the stories set in pre-war Germany — Shanti’s early struggles as an immigrant dental student, his incorporation into the lively social circle of his landlady and her daughters, with picnics, alpine vacations, and Christmas dinners; with tension provided by the unstated romantic polygon among Lola, Henny, Henny’s presumed fiance Hans, and Shanti. From a stash of letters discovered in an attic, Seth pieces together a post-war epistolary detective story of loyalty and betrayal when Henny reconnects with old friends and finds out how they treated her mother and sister during the war. I also enjoyed the bits of first-person narrative that show Seth’s relationship to his aunt and uncle when he stayed with them as university student (the auto-biographical bits also seemed like they were excepts of an unwritten memoir).
Is there any difference between a holocaust memoir written by an Indian great-nephew rather than a Jewish one? After learning about the fate of his great-aunt’s family, Seth makes a pilgrimage to Yad Vashem, finds their names on a transport list, and is overwhelmed; after reading the inventory forms recording the confiscation of household radios and silverware; and the inventory logistics of the trains to Auschwitz, he becomes viscerally repelled by the German language. So far, his emotional reactions are those of a late but true entrant to this strange extended family.
Seth isn’t infected by the “never forget” anxiety to document the story before the protagonists all die; Seth’s research is his the usual obsessive investigation into the background of his stories rather than the ideological fetishism of the memory project. The story of Seth’s trip to Israel also includes a cameo Friday night dinner with a Jewish family, in which he brings a beautiful Indian-Muslim architect friend; on the way back they get briefly lost in east Jerusalem; the cameo creates an opportunity for a little lecture that is one part “can’t-we-get-along” humanism and one-part post-colonial propaganda.
The story, as a whole, illustrates Seth’s love for his relatives whose quiet virtues are kindness, determination and stoicism. Since Seth is great-nephew, he is not sucked into the emotional void, poisoned bickering, and persistent background fear that might come with closer relation. The displaced lives of Shanti and Henny read against the themes of exile and cosmopolitanism that animated Seth’s much earlier Golden Gate, where the vectors of displacement include homosexuality, breakup, and the transient culture of San Francisco’s adoptive families. The theme of a multi-ethnic assimilated culture split by violence is kin to the hindu/muslim theme in suitable boy and Indian history.
The bit that I liked least was the ending, where Uncle Shanti, in failing physical and mental health, starts treating his family badly. It is true that living through the daily physical and emotional pain of an isolated, sick elderly man is agonizing and tedius; Seth forces the reader to live through too much of it. What’s worse, this section still reads as personal, and not yet resolved. Seth is still mad at his uncle for turning mean at the very end of his life; Seth’s anger belongs in journals and family conversation, not for a public audience.
In the book, Seth agonizes out loud about whether it is to publish his aunt’s private letters, and decides that it was the right thing to do; this decision is right, at least literarily. But his decision to air his anger at the irrational actions of his uncle seems literarily as well as ethically askew.
Other bits which could have been cut from the book include a rambling political essay and some family stories set in India before Shanti leaves for Europe. The mostly-interpolated stories of Lola and Elly’s last months were written for Seth’s readers who have not read N holocaust memoirs, history books, and films. The stories worth reading showed distinctive lives, not dehumanized deaths. DVDs these days have “outtake” sections — it would be interesting to publish novels using that convention, putting the outtakes on the web, and only include the core story on paper.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *