The Neverending Story

A few weeks ago, we passed the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II. Not many people alive experienced it firsthand, and those who did were only children at the time. And yet that war remains the setting … Read More

By / September 24, 2009

A few weeks ago, we passed the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II. Not many people alive experienced it firsthand, and those who did were only children at the time. And yet that war remains the setting of countless contemporary novels, including my own. Why does it hold such an attraction for the fiction writer? (And for the reader, for that matter.) I’m not sure, but here are a few theories:

We write about it because 70 years later, we still cannot wrap our heads around what happened. I think there is a misconception that writing requires pure intellect, but I heard another writer say once that it also requires a certain amount of thick-headedness, to stare at the same spot on a wall for years and years. I think that’s very accurate in this case. Many people, especially we who didn’t experience the war, read the facts and the anecdotes and wonder how it was possible for these horrific scenarios to be perpetrated by sentient human beings. In this way, fiction is like myth-trying to reconstruct what we cannot explain. We write about it to vicariously experience the ideals of that time. Strength of community. Steadfastness in love. Resilience in the face of suffering. Regret, forgiveness and redemption. Most of the time, these are considered outdated values in today’s society. We live lives where we shy away from asking friends and family for even the smallest favor because we don’t want to trouble them. Break-ups, divorce and cynicism in dating are commonplace. In our country especially, apathy, modern medicine and technology have been systematically eliminating emotional suffering, physical pain and each slight inconvenience as soon as it appears. And dense cities and relocation make it easier to avoid the person we have wronged rather than ask for forgiveness. The suffering of the war forced many of these ideals to the surface, but they have since receded. To go back to them, we need to resort to fiction.

We write about it because the war provides clear moral boundaries. In World War II, unlike in many other wars, there were achingly clear moral boundaries. Two opposite touchlines of right and wrong. Black and white. Good and evil. And the swift military actions of this war (unlike World War I for example, when soldiers languished in trenches), the extended occupations in most of Europe, and Hitler’s plan to destroy the Jews meant that the civilian population was thoroughly and forcibly entangled. Yet because of the non-binary nature of human beings, if you put a character between these unmovable boundaries, you need to examine the gray areas within each character, the nearly imperceptible shifts that happen with each choice. And of course, reading or writing forces us to examine our own gray areas. What would we do in the same situations? What is the right choice in any given situation? And would our bodies softened by corn-syrup and cubicle life, our minds clouded with moral relativism be strong enough to act? We write about it to honor the generations that came before us. In Poland, I would look at the faces of the old people I passed on the street and imagine what they had to endure and witness in their lifetimes: the suffering through the Nazi occupation, the fifty years of communism, personal tragedies and then the whiplash of societal changes in their later years. Because we are a country of immigrants, every major city is home to refugees and survivors of all kinds of tragedies, who carry around lifetimes of pain inside as they go about their everyday work and errands. Most of our grandparents had much more difficult lives than we do. Many of them endured war, deaths of loved ones, and aching separations from their homelands in order to provide their children and their children’s children with more opportunities. And I feel that we sometimes unthinkingly squander those opportunities on the moment and don’t do enough to honor our ancestors’ sacrifices. It seems to be a theme that I will return to over and over in my writing.

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