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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Memory Monster

Yishai Sarid

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To purchase The Memory Monster

Title: The Memory Monster
Author: Yishai Sarid
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 169 pages
Original in: Hebrew
Availability: The Memory Monster - US
The Memory Monster - UK
The Memory Monster - Canada
Le monstre de la mémoire - France
Monster - Deutschland
Il mostro della memoria - Italia
El monstruo de la memoria - España
  • Hebrew title: מפלצת הזיכרון
  • Translated by Yardenne Greenspan

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Our Assessment:

B : effective take, if familiar ground

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 3/7/2019 Lena Bopp
The NY Times Book Rev. . 4/10/2020 Gal Beckerman
The Observer . 16/1/2022 Hephzibah Anderson
Le Temps . 9/3/2020 J.-B. Vuillème

  From the Reviews:
  • "Was bedeutet die Erinnerung an den Holocaust den wenigen, die noch leben ? Und was macht sie mit denen, die Erinnerung lernen? Yishai Sarid antwortet darauf in seinem Buch Monster, das vor allem Leser in Israel im Blick hat, wo diese Erinnerung ein identitätsstiftendes Merkmal ist, mit fast bösartiger Klarheit: Die Erinnerung hält jeden gefangen, und sie macht alle wahnsinnig." - Lena Bopp, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "His immersion in the thinking and logic of the Nazis is so obsessive that he loses his bearings and begins to see the world in their zero-sum terms. (...) Sarid is clearly very scared for Israel. The allegorical rhythms beat too loudly here to ignore. (...) No longer just chased by the monster, he has been bitten and Sarid demands that we ask: What will he now become ?" - Gal Beckerman, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Where the book excels is in its readiness to court controversy without surrendering nuance, and in place of moralising it offers questioning that's as necessary as it is unsettling." - Hephzibah Anderson, The Observer

  • "Le narrateur s'interroge sur l'usage de la force et de la violence d’une manière radicale qui remue nos angoisses au-delà même de la tragédie de la Shoah." - Jean-Bernard Vuillème, Le Temps

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Memory Monster is presented in the form of a long letter, written by the narrator to the "the official representative of memory" (of the Holocaust), the chairman of the board of Yad Vashem. In opening, the narrator explains that: "The following is a report of what happened there" -- suggesting already to the reader that something of significance involving the narrator happened, somewhere along the line, and presumably it was something problematic.
       The narrator also explains:

     At first, I tried to separate myself from the report and convey it in a clean, academic fashion, without bringing in my own personality or my private life, which, in and of themselves, are nothing worthy of discussion. But after writing only a few lines, I realized that was impossible. I was the vessel inside which the story lived. If I widened the cracks until I broke, the story would be lost, too.
       This sums up the novel as a whole, too: the narrator is an historian, with a PhD in Holocaust Studies (after failing to make the grade for the diplomatic service -- already a telling failure). While still working towards his PhD he earned accreditation as a tour guide of Holocaust sites -- the camps -- and for a long time this is his main occupation; he is also invited to become involved in a variety of Holocaust-related activities, from a computer "visualization" to appeal to a younger crowd at Yad Vashem ("It's a game" -- a computer game -- the narrator correctly points out) to the planning of an event marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of the notorious Wannsee Conference (where the Germans finalized the 'final solution'). As the narrator chronicles his path, there is a constant tension between the historical facts that he recounts for others -- the almost dry textbook recitation of events and dates, which most history is eventually reduced to -- and the visceral, personal, deeply emotional reaction to the horrors, which were, after all, staggering in both scale and atrocity. The narrator is a true scholar of the Holocaust, an expert with all the facts at his fingertips -- which also makes him a good guide -- but the disconnect between all those 'facts' he has learned and deals with daily and the lived horror they represent, between the rational-analytic and the personal-emotional, is, unsurprisingly, something he has difficulty dealing with.
       The Memory Monster is then a novel that considers how the Holocaust is 'remembered' -- as merely historical 'fact', or as something beyond that. It is an issue that applies to history in general -- much of which is, after all, filled with endless shocking atrocities -- but the Holocaust is, of course, also a special example because, like American slavery, it is a horror whose effects and aftereffects still linger very tangibly in the present-day. The narrator finds that among his audience -- the schoolchildren he guides through the camps, for example -- it is generally just casually apprehended, events that are, by and large, perceived as as distant as any others from decades or centuries past, which few can still in any meaningful way relate to. The people he guides, whether school-class groups or dignitaries, are basically tourists, and they have difficulty taking more from the experience; the schoolchildren can mouth the lessons they know they are supposed to take from the experience, but it's mostly mind rather than heart that is in the matter.
       Not so for the narrator, who veers between trying to hold onto some clinical detachment and sinking into the mire of confronting this incredible evil. At one point, the narrator joins an archaeologist and his team to participate in a dig at Soribor. (Yes, Sarid can be a bit heavy-handed -- not only does the narrator descend into a pit beside the site of a gas chamber to dig into the past, as it were, he actually makes a find: a key .....) At the end of the day:
     The workers were eager to get out of there, but I thought about sticking around a little longer until it grew completely dark.
     "Don't stay here alone," the archaeologist said, reading my mind. "This is a job. We finish and we leave. Otherwise we lose our minds. It's too awful."
       But the narrator finds it difficult to leave any of this; he can't compartmentalize, like the archaeologist and his crew; he wants to sink metaphorically into all this: "until it grew completely dark" -- because that is what the Holocaust was, pure, bleakest darkness, and how can he deny that ?
       Though married, and with a son, he spends much of his time in Poland, giving tours; he even takes an apartment there. Seeing his family so rarely, he has few distractions; even the other projects he works on, including the publication of his dissertation, are all Holocaust-related: he can't -- and doesn't seem to want to -- escape the overwhelming subject. But, of course, it is overwhelming -- and if he doesn't outright lose his mind, he certainly does not remain entirely stable.
       The narrator is disappointed by the lack of engagement of his audience, and their unwillingness or inability to truly peer into the depths of this abyss. He also becomes increasingly troubled by some of the questions that inevitably arise, including what he would have done in the situation the Jews deportees found themselves in. So also the situation of the kapos and Sonderkommandos -- prisoners who were part of the machinery -- is a problematic one he struggles with.
       When his own young son is bullied at kindergarten, he is aggressive in his reaction: "Force is the only way to resist force, and one must be prepared to kill", he insists (not that the situation escalates to anywhere near that); tellingly, his approach doesn't prove particularly successful in resolving the issue.
       The narrator struggles to maintain an even keel -- though of course the question in the face of the historical occurrence that is his area of expertise is how one even could; the horrors were beyond any pale -- how does one deal with that ? The narrator arguably doesn't deal well, and his tour-guiding career sputters and largely flames out, as he's no longer the simple, reliable spewer of facts (which is all the groups want him to be). And one final gig, involving a German film director who has his own ideas about confronting the past -- and is the most knowledgeable about the sites they visit of any of the many people the narrator has guided ... -- is then the final straw.
       Ending his letter, the narrator imagines the chairman he addressed it won't even bother to have read that far:
I imagine you have pushed these pages aside with revulsion long ago. They are overflowing with perversion and self-hatred and emotional vomit. What does any of this turmoil have to do with you ?
       Here Sarid is, of course, also addressing the (novel-)reader. Indeed, it's perhaps the basic question of the novel: What does any of this have to do with the contemporary reader/visitor/citizen ? What is the place for the memory of the Holocaust, and how do we deal with what happened then ?
       The title of the novel comes from the narrator explaining the work he does to his young son
     "What's your job, Dad ?" he asked.
     "He tells them about what happened," Ruth offered.
     "What happened ?" Ido widened his eyes with worry.
     "There was a monster that killed people," I said.
     "And you fight the monster ?" he asked, excited.
     "It's already dead," I tried to explain. "It's a memory monster."
       Of course, he ultimately comes to a different understanding, that even as Yad Vashem is a repository of the: "remains of memory locked in glass cases" the true monster behind them is far from dead: it's still, always out there, and: "It is alive and waiting for its time to strike again".
       The compact , far-ranging novel is quite effective, despite how difficult it is to deal with what is after all very familiar material. The contemporary angle, allowing for a focus on the dangers of forgetting, is quite well-handled, and the narrator (and his spiral into the abyss) plausibly rendered. It's meant to be an uncomfortable trip, too, and it certainly succeeds as that -- with Sarid thankfully avoiding the gratuitously sensational.
       The Memory Monster is a fine addition to Holocaust literature -- though in the mass of it can also feel a bit like just another variation on the theme, not sufficiently differentiated to really stand out in a novel way; artistically it is also generally solid, though arguably, for all the mention of the personal, falling short in the development of the characters (with most of the secondary ones, including wife and child, only incidentally figuring in most of the narrative). Sarid raises and grapples with many of the vital questions -- but they have been widely grappled with before, and even as it continues to be important to engage with them, Sarid's narrator's twisted path is across familiar territory with all the well-known and often-debated markers and issues -- usefully pointed out, but ultimately really only limitedly and hurriedly considered. On the other hand, for those who haven't read extensively on the subject, it's a sharp and good concise take, effectively presented -- an ideal text for college introductory survey courses and the like.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 September 2020

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The Memory Monster: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Israeli author Yishai Sarid (ישי שריד‎) was born in 1965.

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© 2020-2022 the complete review

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