By February 17, 2008 0 Comments Read More →

Two New Novels Blur Truth and Fiction

How much imagination is allowed before a memoir turns into a novel? It’s a fine line between autobiography and autobiographical fiction. The year has started out with some fascinating riffs on realism, including two very unusual hybrid approaches to reality that make top-flight reading and would make fascinating group discussion pieces.

Tetsuo Miura’s Shame in the Blood is considered a novel, but the author is telling the true, tragic story of his siblings, telling it over and over, each time emphasizing a different part of the tale.

In this slender little volume of six novellas, the first five are the tragic tale of his life told five different ways. Japanese novelist Tetsuo Miura’s debut in English is simply astonishing, plain and straightforward in an artless way but packed with unusual twists and turns and told with a quiet urgency.

Both Miura’s unnamed narrator and Miura himself suffer from terror of their own genetic make-up. Miura and his narrator are both writers desperately trying to work out their demons, telling the same story over and over, the story of Miura’s real-life family. One sister threw herself into the sea. One sister took poison. One brother disappeared. One brother ran off with the family funds. One sister is retarded. And then there’s Miura. With the history of his brothers and sisters, he can only wonder in fear what will he do to shame his family. Does he not have the same blood?

There’s a startling moment when you start the second story and realize you’ve already covered this ground, that the tale of the narrator’s shattered family and his love for Shino is being told again, but differently this time. Each of the five tales takes a different moment in the same narrative. What is told in one sentence in the third story becomes the subject of the fourth story. As exasperated as the reader gets with the narrator, who refuses to work so that he can lock himself in his room and write stories, the troubled little narratives that result about his brave, tragic family are his salvation and our reading joy.

Philippe Grimbert’s Memory also tells a true story, the love and survival through the war of his parents, Maxime and Tania. The author tells it twice, first the version of the story that he once believed to be true up to the age of fifteen, and then the story again with horrifying new information.

Not a word is wasted in Grimbert’s short, taut, elegant experiment in blurring the line between memoir and novel. The author is a real-life psychoanalyst working out the terrible demons of his childhood, in particular the brother who wasn’t there, the invisible playmate who turned out to be real. Grimbert is so scrupulously honest that he calls this careful reconstruction of the past a novel since, like a novelist, he can only guess at the motives of his parents before he was alive.

His discovery as a child of an old toy dog in the attic launches a belief that he has an older brother. The shocking twist is that he actually does, but he doesn’t find that out until he’s fifteen. That discovery causes the author to tell the story over again.

First time through we watch Maxime and Tania, the boy’s parents, escape the horrors of the war in spite of being Jewish. They hide out in a little village in unoccupied France, and come back to Paris when it’s safe. As far as the narrator can see, the worst thing that’s happened to these two beautiful athletes and specimens of health is to have produced a scrawny, delicate, sickly son – the unhappy fellow telling the story.

The book breaks in half when the boy watches a documentary on the Holocaust atrocities in school. When a school jock laughs, the narrator leaps on him swinging. His tearful recounting of the incident induces the good next-door neighbor and elderly family pal, Louise, to tell him the truth – he’s a Jew himself but doesn’t know it. And that’s just one of her surprises.

The author then proceeds to tell the story of Maxime and Tania all over again. This version, however, is wildly different, including the deportations, the death camps, and a heartbreaking secret his parents have never dared reveal.

Some authors would call this a memoir. This scrupulous author considers it fiction only because the recreation of Maxime and Tania’s lives has been enhanced by the narrator’s imagination, pieced together from the only facts the author possesses. Though it reads like a memoir, this lean little gem very cautiously introduces enough guesswork to qualify as an autobiographical novel – well, two autobiographical novels, actually. The fascination here isn’t the cheery tale, but the sparse, minimalist method of presenting it. You’ll look in vain for a single melodramatic scene – which only makes this powerful, understated little story even more wrenching.

Just what is the best way for an author to describe and confront the injustices of family tragedy in real life? Miura and Grimbert are two very different men who have very different fears and make very different discoveries, but both men use the same therapeutic device: redemption through the written word.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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