BOOK REVIEW / A couch-journey back to the camps: Pictures at an exhibition - D M Thomas: Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
AFTER The White Hotel appeared in 1981, D M Thomas was accused of having borrowed from some eyewitness accounts of the Babi Yar massacre for the climax of that novel. There are worse offences than plagiarism, though. What else should an author do - introduce new horrors of his own devising?

Pictures at an Exhibition deals with the extermination camps and their continuing inheritance in the contemporary world. The first chapter is set in Auschwitz, and includes tortures which one hopes the author didn't spend time thinking up. It also raises the larger question of whether fiction has anything to add to history in this instance - the instance being one of unique extremity, where the exact truth is what we need to know, and which shouldn't therefore be made into an opportunity for the imagination.

But perhaps this 'uniqueness' is itself a piety through which the Holocaust is quarantined in subsequent memory, made into a sacred symbol of evil which must not be touched, and which thus does not sufficiently touch us. That, roughly speaking, is the argument of the present novel: there are only thin partitions between the camps and ourselves. From Auschwitz we cut abruptly to present-day London, for a black adulterous comedy set among psychoanalysts and their patients and families. This involves a large group of characters clustered round the wise but slightly repulsive old shrink, Dr Jacobson.

Most of these characters are connected one way or another to the exterminations, and discovering what these connections are - how the first and the subsequent chapters link up - is the burden of the story. In particular there is the question of whether the now crippled Jacobson, married to an Auschwitz survivor, is one and the same person as the Auschwitz doctor we meet in the opening episode.

The events and revelations are intricately plotted (the novel defies precis) and the theme of uncertain identities is mimed by having the story told through a succession of letters and couch-monologues, so that a continual suspense is maintained. With each new item, one is initially in doubt as to who is speaking, and to whom, and what precisely it is that's just happened. It makes for an efficient page-turner, but any living and distinct voices are submerged beneath this tricky narrative method. One gets a bit of 'character', then a bit of 'essential info for the reader', then a bit of 'author's thought', in awkward montage. Everyone, is, or has been, screwing everyone else and many serpentine trails lead back to the camps, but one cares very little. The people are nothing; the ingenuity of the plot, and the technical problems of first-person exposition, win all one's attention.

Within this unfortunately weightless atmosphere, Pictures at an Exhibition raises some unbearably heavy moral ironies. The camps, like any human institution, acquired their own day-to-day normality. For survivors, they came to represent an intensity of experience for which the bland ameliorism of contemporary Europe is no substitute (Thomas gets off his chest numerous beefs about feminism, Jacques Delors and almost every other news 'issue' of the last two years). The exterminations were the crimes not of irrationality but of sober and repressed reasonableness, and Edvard Munch's pictures recur in the novel as contrasting emblems of emotional health.

As to the mystery of Dr Jacobson's identity, this is left half in the air, with the implication that the question is indifferent: the camps were staffed by many decent men, and there is no reason why they shouldn't thereafter become indistinguishable from other decent men who were spared the test by history. It is our faith in 'decent' men that needs questioning.

All these points might have been made in a documentary and discursive way, or they might have been given fiction's own peculiar proofs. They are, in effect, made discursively here. They remain things the author wants to talk about, mouthed and urged but not embodied. It's no surprise that this subject matter should defeat anyone's imagination. But the novel becomes what it was vital it shouldn't become: a melodrama, with the Holocaust as dark and emphatic underscoring.

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