Originally posted April 2018.
"What You Read" is a short story which will be released in ten parts in this blog. It is inspired by the work I did for “The Pendulum”. It revolves around the question of what the books we read say about us.
Tolstoy’s deeply Russian sense of fatalism, expressed most clearly by the enigmatic character of the Russian General Kutuzov, dulled the sharpness of this new question and must have come as a relief to you. According to him, in the eye of battle no one was responsible and no strategy possible. According to Tolstoy, Kutuzov and Napoleon resigned themselves to fate and superstition, and history simply unfolded. You found a certain comfort in this portrayal, which I had difficulty understanding until I learned that you had volunteered for an organization responsible for redistributing clothing that had once belonged to those sent to be exterminated ‘for the war effort.' Was this too part of the momentum and the haze of war that no one had any control over?
In later years, the nervous condition that forced your eyes to shut each time that you looked at the printed page seemed the harshest of punishments for one so in love with books. Instead, you listened to “War and Peace” performed by some of Germany’s best acting voices on a tape recorder.
“What we did was nothing compared to the slaughter of the Napoleonic Wars. Terrible! TER-RIB-LE!” you exclaimed, with an indignation I recognized from growing up at home. You patted the thick book, which you kept before you on the dining table when you were listening to it, even as you no longer opened the cover. It was like your best defence in a never-ending trial.
When you were over one hundred years old, I confronted you with the truth you could never share with me: the fanatic Party and SS engagement throughout the duration of the Third Reich. I tried not to cast blame, having learned from Tolstoy that the forces of history were too complex to lay the responsibility for their unfolding at the feet of any one person.
“This history doesn’t belong to you and you will never understand it,” you snapped, warning me to leave the past alone. It was a clever, temporarily destabilizing retort until I reflected upon your apparent mastery of the Napoleonic Wars, which had ended nearly a century before you were born. If none of us had the right to history, how could you have the right to the early 19th century?
I have sometimes wondered whether it is the duty of family members to the leave the past of loved ones alone. It might have been an act of tolerance and mercy to behold and accept, rather than to demand clarity about every one of your many faces. But I chose another path, which was to read “War and Peace” now and again to discover the questions that may have lurked in your heart, because someday they could be mine.