The Yugoslav Holocaust, the South Seas, and the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (28 cents)

BOOKS

1. David Albahari’s “Gotz and Meyer”. I highly recommend this novel, published in 1998, and translated from the Serbian. Abahari is a Serbian/Jewish author, now resident in Canada, and his unique book is set in Belgrade during the years of the Nazi occupation.

Why is the book unique? For one thing, this short (169 page) novel is composed of exactly one paragraph. Not quite a stream of consciousness paragraph but one where every sentence leads to the next, where an unexpected allusion in one sentence can be picked up in the next and turn the narrative in an unexpected direction.

The book is written in the first person, by a school teacher in Belgrade who, while researching his family tree, learns about the “transit camp” set up at the Belgrade Fairgrounds, to hold Jewish families (largely excluding adult, non-elderly males, who were shot) before they were placed in the back of a large truck, where they died through carbon monoxide poisoning as the truck drove from the fairgrounds to a site in the city where pits had been dug by Serbian prisoners and where the corpses of the murdered Jews were buried (until they were later dug up and burned). A horrific state of affairs to be sure.

Not only horrific, but factual. And, in researching the holocaust in Belgrade, Albahari learned a lot, including the fact that the gas truck had two German soldier drivers, one named Gotz and one named Meyer, about whom nothing else is known.

This gave Albahari his opportunity, and he centered his story telling on the unknown duo, whose lives he filled out through his imagination. One of the drivers was married, one liked children, they both wanted to do their job well, they had different personalities, etc. (of course, it was unclear which was Gotz and which was Meyer.)

This is what makes the book unique, and (if this is the right word , for a Holocaust book), and enjoyable.

2. Elinor Mordaunt’s 1926 book, “The Venture Book”, retelling her trek to the South Pacific, a 50+ year old English woman, traveling by cargo ship and tramp steamer, visiting Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti, and several small islands, French and British, still in the 1920s rather “primitive”. Now, Mordaunt’s prose is not as poetic as Richard Halliburton’s, and she (as opposed to Halliburton) doesn’t mind complaining about conditions, either aboard ship or on land. In fact, a lot of this book is taken up by her complaining (not that the conditions weren’t appropriate to complain about, but after all she put herself in this position) about the ship captains, the islanders, the weather and so forth. Interspersed with this are descriptions of island life, island foliage and so forth, and you certainly get a feeling as to how much removed from modernity these islands were in the 1920s. Do I recommend this book? Sure, to read about how these remote communities were functioning at the end of an era, but for the writing or the personality of the author, not so much.

An example, on the Fiji island of Mbau: “In every way Ratu Pope thinks of and for his sister, Adi – the Princess – Cakobau, with the greatest devotion and tenderness. But he cannot speak to his own sister, for that is forbidden to any man of high rank in Fiji; nor can he enter her house, for that is also against the etiquette of a country which is ruled by etiquette. And yet if this sister of his had had a son and Ratu Pope a daughter, these would inevitably, in the old days, have been husband and wife without the necessity of any ceremony; thought it Ratu had a son, it would be an abomination for him to mate with his cousin, the daughter of his father’s sister.”

Or: “It has been a perfectly horrible night. There was an open doorway just opposite the end of my platformed bed. When I shut it I was almost choked by the smoke and the smell of the many people, talking and eating and drinking throughout the entire night, crowded together in the hut; leaving it open, I was chilled to death by the damp, cold mist which drifited in so that even my hair was wet and I thought I should die……”

LECTURE

I attended a very interesting presentation by Harvard Law professor Annette Gordon-Reed, author of “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings” and “The Hemingses of Monticello”. She spoke about her two books, and her current research on the Hemings family during the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries. She was most interesting talking about the changes in the writing of the history of slavery over the past few decades, as slave narratives have been taken much more seriously. She talked about Jefferson’s treatment of the Hemings familly, which was somewhat protective, in that the family was kept together at Monticello for generations, making them easier to write about than most slave families. When Jefferson died, there were 140 slaves at Monticello. His will freed only 5, the other 135 were auctioned off to pay his extensive debts. She talked about Jefferson’s very detailed daily records (everything he did, everything he spent, detailed weather readings, details about he birth and death of slaves, etc.), and that this was not uncommon during the 18th century, and it makes research somewhat easy. But she warned that most of history is not the study of fact, it is the study of probability. She talked about the biological relationship between Jeffersons and Hemingses, and how Jefferson’s wife Martha did not want the Hemingses sold, which was the reaction of many slaveholder wives under similar services.

It was a very interesting conversation. I was sorry that there weren’t more in the audience to listen to her at DC’s Martin Luther King Library where, by the way, the conditions for a lecture are miserable. One more problem with the DC central library.

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