Where naughty children get murdered

FRAGMENTS by Binjamin Wilkomirski Picador pounds 9.99
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A peculiar set of conventions has come to cluster around depictions of the Holocaust: in the face of facts so terrible, the reasoning seems to run, any elaboration of the truth, any whiff of artistry or showbiz, would be in rather poor taste.

As a result, books and films that deal with the Holocaust tend towards the consciously, even ostentatiously austere. Hence Spielberg's decision to film Schindler's List in black and white (all except for that one red coat); hence the deliberate concision, the weeding-out of extraneous detail, in Otto Friedrich's 100-page chronicle of The Kingdom of Auschwitz; hence, by contrast, the relent- less repetition and accumulation of horror in Claude Lanzmann's nine-hour documentary Shoah.

The reasons for this are understandable and laudable; but the effect has been to turn the literature of genocide into a genre, with rules almost as constricting as those binding the Agatha Christie-style detective story. Some artists have successfully broken the bounds of the genre, such as Art Spiegelman in his comic-book account of Auschwitz, Maus; but in other cases flouting the rules has brought only vituperation and contempt. Look at the reaction Martin Amis got when he dared to publish a Holocaust novel as blatantly literary as Time's Arrow - not a good book maybe, but an apparently sincere and well-intended one.

It's against this background that you have to consider Fragments, Binjamin Wilkomirski's memoir of a childhood spent largely in the death-camps of Poland. Superficially, this book conforms to expectations of a book about the Shoa (Wilkomirski's preferred spelling). A few times, Wilkomirski attempts a metaphor when he's trying to characterise the nexus of emotions surrounding his jumble of disconnected memories - "Shards of recollection, holding my brothers fast inside, like flakes of feldspar in a great rockslope of childhood memory"; on these occasions, the sense of strain overwhelms the meaning he's trying to convey. Otherwise, the book is concise and uninflected.

All the same, what makes Fragments stand out is not the catalogue of horrors he relates - it would be pointless to repeat too many of them here: you can take it that Wilkomirski saw and experienced much that was sickening and evil - nor even the fact of their being seen through a child's eyes. That in itself doesn't add anything to our stock of knowledge or understanding of the Shoa. What's most striking is the book's artistry, a self-consciousness at odds with the claim that Wilkomirski is trying to present what happened "exactly the way my child's memory has held on to it; with no benefit of perspective or vanishing point".

Flitting backwards and forwards in time, Fragments doesn't attempt to present a chronological account of Wilkomirski's childhood ( this would in any case be impossible: he was, he thinks, three or four years old when he entered the Majdanek camp, too young to have any clear idea of what was happening, and no one has survived who could clear up his confused notion of events). Instead, Wilkomirski orders his fragments of knowledge so as to reproduce in the reader something of his own sense of disorientation and alienation. In particular, when the story moves for the first time from the camps to the Swiss orphanage where he was cared for for a while, the change is hard to detect. You're unsure whether he has indeed reached safety, or whether we're entering some new phase of horror; and this disorientation accompanies you through the rest of the book.

The most shocking episode are not the stories of babies with smashed skulls and concentration camp guards laughing while they kill children; it's his accounts of how those images followed him - how he got into trouble at school for assuming that a picture of William Tell shooting the apple off his son's head was meant to represent a SS man shooting a child; how he came across the boiler in his foster-parents' home and knew, without doubt, that this was how they intended to dispose of him.

The disorientation of the reader is carefully calculated and brought off with considerable skill; and it brings out what is perhaps the book's most important theme: the need to keep hold of memories, however appalling, because in them lies your identity. So far as the young Binjamin was concerned, his well-meaning, ignorant Swiss rescuers were no less cruel than the camp guards who beat and tortured him; both groups were guilty of trying to take away his life - his teachers and foster-parents through insisting that he forget the past and "imposing" a new identity on him.

The artistry with which you're brought to empathise with Wilkomirski the boy doesn't keep you from being faintly perturbed by Wilkomirski the man - by his unwillingness to make allowances, by the self-pity that pervades some of his stories when he writes about the incomprehension he has encountered after trying to talk about his childhood. It's possible that Wilkomirski shares some of your perturbation, that what he is offering you is not self-pity as such but a ruthless portrait of self-pity. Whichever is true, it doesn't shake your sense of the book's cleverness and its value in widening our sense of the appalling consequences of the Holocaust.