Well, this book was the second purchase in Foyles during my recent trip to London, and it was actually difficult to choose what Perec to read next. Having loved his “Life: A User’s Manual”, I didn’t want to leave it too long before picking up another of his works – his words and images are rather haunting me at the moment, so much so that I felt the urge to do a jigsaw and picked up a nice one of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square! But that’s by the by – the book is what matters!

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However, I’m actually finding it hard to approach writing about “W” for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a hard book to classify – fiction? autobiography? a strange fantastic blend of both? It was in the fiction section of Foyles, and Vintage have stated quite clearly on the back cover “Fiction”. Yet, anyone with a small smattering of knowledge about Perec’s life will know enough to realise that one section of the book is certainly autobiographical. Secondly, the subject matter is quite intense and painful in places, bringing forth quite an emotional reaction – it takes a little while to assimilate then mentally deal with this work.

“W” has alternating chapters of two stories – the first consists of fragments of memories, recollection of events from Perec’s youth and childhood that he attempts to piece together; including some which were actually written in his youth. The second story, the italicised chapters of the book, tells the tale of one Gaspard Winkler (a name Perec used for one of the main characters in “Life”). Winkler provides a brief autobiography, in which he tells how he was orphaned, grew up, joined the army, deserted and escaped to Germany. Here, he is tracked down by a strange man, and it transpires that he has taken his identity from a shipwrecked boy called Gaspard Winkler. The boy is believed to be alive, and the impersonator is sent to search the islands off Tierro del Fuego to look for him.

The book is split into two parts, and in the second part, the italicised chapters tell of the island of W (which should be correctly rendered as double-vie in French, i.e. it can be read as ‘double life’ which kind of gives you a handle on how to read the book). The island’s hierarchy and way of life is entirely based on the Olympian ideal of sport. Initially, this seems to be some kind of utopian place, but as the story develops and more is revealed, it becomes clear that W is really not a nice place to live. Perec states that he invented the story of W in his youth, but it is unclear whether what we read here is the original or an expanded version – Perec is good at blurring lines.

Parallel to the W story, Perec continues with his memoirs of his youth – being sent away by his mother to live with a variety of aunts and attend local schools. His father died unnecessarily of a war wound and after his mother sent him away, he never saw her again. Perec is left with a handful of photos, a mixture of fragmented memories and a sense of loss. As the two strands of the book progress, it becomes clear that if/when Perec wrote about W as a youth, it was an analogy. W is anything but a paradise, it is simply an allegory for the concentration camps in which his mother lost her life, and the horrors it reveals are quite chilling. The reality of living under the Nazi regime is shown quite clearly and the hopelessness of those in the camps is staggering:

“There are competitions every day, where you Win or Lose. You have to fight to live. There is no alternative. It is not possibly to close your eyes to it, it is not possible to say no. There’s no recourse, no mercy, no salvation to be had from anyone. There’s not even any hope that time will sort things out … wherever you turn your eyes, that’s what you will see, you will not see anything else, and that is the only thing that will turn out to be true.”

Perec states early on:

“I have no childhood memories. I was excused: a different history, History with a capital H, had answered the questions in my stead: the war, the camps.”

In many ways that’s understandable, because as an evacuee, in effect a refugee from the Germans, he was very likely in denial about much that had happened to him. But I do feel that Perec is commenting on the quality of memory in general. I’m often suspicious of detailed autobiography, because I know from personal experience that it’s very difficult to remember your life. You retain fragments, images, feelings – but not a clear narrative of  your own existence. You don’t really have time to do that as you’re too busy living!!

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The autobiographical section is infused with sadness, loss and the confusions that children often feel, not understanding what is going on around them and why. And the human mind blanks out things which are painful, which it can’t deal with. The horrors revealed on the island of W, as its story unfolds, are the evils endured in the camps – random favouritism, cruelty, unfairness, inequality, brutality, the use of women as breeding machines and everything else that existed under the Nazi regime. By the end of the book it is quite clear that the two strands of the tale are related, with Perec trying to rationalise the events around him by creating the island of W.

“The Law is implacable, but the Law is unpredictable.. The Law must be known by all, but the Law cannot be known. Between those who live under its swat and those who pronounce it stands an insurmountable barrier.”

I am sure that, as with “Life”, I will get more from this book on a re-read. Thinking back on it, it’s still a hard book to mentally classify. “W” is a chilling story and one which bleakly reveals the evil of the concentration camps. It seems to me that perhaps the unusual structure is due to the fact Perec can only tell this story obliquely because of the implicit horrors it contains – if he looked at his past head-on, it would be too much to deal with. This is a stark book and one that will stay with me; and despite only having read two of his books, Perec is well on his way to becoming one of my favourite writers.

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