This is a long, solemn, repetitive book, portentous in concept and banal in its conclusions. Hannah Arendt is invoked, as inspiration and exemplar, but instead the Canadian author puts one in mind of an earnest civics teacher trying to rouse a bored class.
Erna Paris takes her theme from Orwell: "He who controls the present controls the past. He who controls the past controls the future." How do nations, and their myth-makers, manipulate historical memory? Who decides the official record, and how to propagate the tale? How do people live with the consequences? And why is it that some countries (Germany, Japan, former Yugoslavia) cannot lay the past to rest?
These are serious questions for the historian and political theorist. So Paris doggedly takes off on a three-year trip through four continents to explore how nations reinterpret themselves after seminal events such as the Holocaust, Hiroshima, or genocidal war. In addition to Germany and Japan, she "does" the US, with its repressed memories of slavery; is out of her depth trying to unravel the mix of searing testimony, political calculation and conscious exploitation that went into the creation of the superb Holocaust museum in Washington; sits in on hearings of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the International Court of the Hague; and revisits France for a reprise of a previous book about resistance and collaboration.
In each country, Paris begins with a potted, accurate history, throws in the names of significant writers, then goes out to interview a wide spectrum of opinion. She has all the proper questions prepared. Is it ever possible for the living to "forgive" on behalf of the dead? Where does duty lie? What happens when good people say and do nothing?
The only trouble is, the major protagonists with the exception of the endlessly patient and accessible Archbishop Tutu are too canny or too busy to give their time. The big names (Mandela, De Klerk, Elie Wiesel, Richard Goldstone, Jesse Jackson) are otherwise engaged. So no Karadzic, no Milosevic, but instead ludicrous Klara Mandic, Serbia's answer to Zsa-Zsa Gabor, who enjoyed brief celebrity as a glamorous TV apologist for the Belgrade regime. Hard though Paris tries, one cannot avoid the impression that she has been fobbed off with Second Eleven spokespersons.
That in itself is not a problem. The experiences of ordinary people are often more revealing than official accounts. And Paris unearths some painful, terrible and affecting stories. But she has this smug habit of personal intrusion, breaking up a testimony to let us know when her eyes brim with sympathetic tears, reminding herself not to recoil from "what it is to be a writer: to watch, to ask, to elicit a response, to empathise, to weigh, to judge".
One suggestion she repeatedly offers is the Formal Apology. Apology was all in vogue while she was writing her book with Tony Blair apologising for the Irish Famine, the Queen for the Amritsar Massacre, and Christians descending on startled Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem to apologise for the Crusades but its efficacy is doubted by many of her interviewees.
The quest for answers must continue, from one troublespot to another (but not, interesting omission, the Middle East, where the burden of selective memory is greater than anywhere). She travels through Serbia and Croatia like an exhilarated Kate Adie, ending up in Nuremberg, where in 1946 the concept of an international war crimes tribunal was legitimised.
Paris reaches three conclusions: that when a group is demonised, and the humanity of individuals in it is erased, anything can happen; that people will fight fiercely to chronicle their experience in the face of falsified histories; and that the ways to shape historical memory are surprisingly limited, ranging from lies and denial in Serbia and Japan, through judicious myth-making in France, to attempts to confront the past in South Africa. Did it really require 495 pages to state the obvious?
The reviewer is Senior Rabbi of the Liberal Synagogue in north London.Reuse content