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Village of a Million Spirits:
Village of a Million Spirits is set in what one of its characters calls "the most heavily populated quarter-square mile on earth"; the only difference, he tells us, is that "95 percent of the people were spirits." That village is Treblinka, where Jewish prisoners--the lucky ones--cooperate in their own extinction, while those who are strong enough dream of revolt. Here we meet 14-year-old Janusz, whose genius lies in being nondescript; Anatoly, the Ukrainian guard with oversize ears and a burning hatred of his German superiors; Magda, Anatoly's girlfriend, who spends the entire novel giving birth to his child; and the German officer Voss, who drinks his way into an obsession with Jewish gold. All coexist in a camp rendered with nightmarish realism, their minds fixing on almost any detail that might provide a moment's relief: meaningless coincidences, the smell of pine sap, priceless stamps dropped in the snow.
Time after time, Ian MacMillan introduces a character only to lead him shortly afterwards to the door of a gas chamber--and in one case, beyond. The technique keeps us permanently off balance; we never know whether we're meeting someone who's about to die immediately, horribly, or someone who might make it through half the book. And yet, somehow the author is getting at the fundamental challenge facing all Holocaust literature. It's the problem of scale: At what point does it all become just a parade of corpses? How does one make the suffering particular without having the reader go numb? Yanking gold teeth from the mouths of gassed Jews, young Janusz keeps himself occupied by imagining their identities. It's the only way he can bring himself to face the abstraction of death on this scale: "Each one is a person. Each has a past that is at least as complicated and abundant with memory as his own." Every 20th or 30th tooth, he pops one into his mouth, holding it there while he works and later bartering the gold for weapons.
The uprising is doomed from the start, of course, but in a way, that's not the point. Just because it will fail doesn't mean it's not necessary. At one point, Janusz watches his friend dragged off to certain death. As he goes, Adam points steadily to his temple and then his eye, and Janusz realizes that his friend is giving him an order: "that he, Janusz Siedlecki, should carry on, see, and remember, see and remember, see and remember.... All these people have been made to vanish from the earth, the reality of their existence wiped away, but for one thing: the presence of one person to see and remember." The remarkable thing is, of course, that MacMillan was not there to see or remember--and nonetheless he makes us do both. --Mary Park [via]