Remembrance of Things Past

Just been to see ‘Patience (After Sebald)’ a documentary based on the W.G.Sebald’s  ‘The Rings of Saturn.

I’d like to say it does the book justice but unfortunately it doesn’t.

Mind you that would be hard because ‘The Rings of Saturn’ is a masterpiece and extraordinary genre twister that is part travel book, part memoir, part biography and part fiction.

Ostensibly it’s a book about a man’s walking tour of East Anglia, the flat landscape of South-Eastern England which most closely resembles Holland.

As he walks he observes landmarks and places, which trigger some seemingly unrelated digressions. Our traveler is reminded of everything from the last days of the imperial Chinese empire to Joseph Conrad’s childhood exile in Siberia to an unrequited romance between two nineteenth century poets.

All the while the book intersperses grainy black and white pictures found or taken by Sebald himself during his trip, making this strange literary journey stranger still.

Soon it becomes apparent that there is nothing random about the authors ‘detours’. In fact they are the heart of the story, telling us of the endless tragedy and barbaric cruelty that litters human history. A fact we are all to keen to forget.

This is rather downbeat reality is offset by the amazing grace of the writing. It’s translated from German but Sebald, who lived much of his life in England, closely supervised the superb translation.

Of course, the elephant in the room is the holocaust, which is never once mentioned in the book but is somehow omnipresent.

Sebald was of that German generation who spent their childhood in the aftermath of the Second World War and grew up with what he describes as ‘a conspiracy of silence’ around it.

In books like ‘The Rings of Saturn’ he performs a kind of act of remembrance for tragedies passed, reminding us of the reality of human history in the most engaging and moving way possible.

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