Friday, January 27, 2023

Q&A with Omer Bartov




Omer Bartov is the author of the new novel The Butterfly and the Axe. His other books include Anatomy of a Genocide. He is the Samuel Pisar Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies in the Department of History at Brown University, and he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Q: What inspired you to write The Butterfly and the Axe, and how was the book's title chosen?

A: I was inspired to write The Butterfly and the Axe when I realized that after researching my mother's birth town and region for 20 years and reconstructing its fate in the Holocaust in my historical monograph Anatomy of a Genocide, I still knew practically nothing about how my own family was murdered there.


That is, my family's life and fate before and during the Holocaust is simply missing from the historical record, save for a few fragments of stories and rumors. I felt it was simply unjust that these people had vanished from history and memory, and wanted to put them back into the story by way of imagining their lives and deaths.


For me, the beauty and ephemeral existence of butterflies, of which there are numerous species in this region of Galicia, on the one hand, and the ubiquity and utility of axes there, a crucial worktool which was often also used for killing by the locals in periods of violence, represent the combination of natural beauty and murderous inclinations of my ancestral home.


It also perhaps expresses a certain kind of hope since, as someone once told me, “you cannot kill a butterfly with an axe.” Beauty, however ephemeral as a lifeform, is also everlasting. This is how I think of the little girl who contemplates her imminent liberation moments before she is murdered.

Q: You write, “This book contains autobiographical and historical elements but is ultimately a work of fiction.” What did you see as the right balance between autobiography, history, and fiction as you wrote the book?


A: I don't think there is  “right” balance between history and fiction. That is, in fact, the underlying assertion of this novel. As a historian, I believe in facts, and disdain works of scholarship that contain fictional, or even unreliable facts and speculations.


But I am also deeply aware of the limitations of historical reconstructions of the past in “rescuing” events and people who cannot be found in the historical record, or in breathing life into eras for which there is scant documentation. In this sense, I am a great believer in supplementing history through fiction.


But for me historical fiction ought to be rooted both in a deep knowledge of the recorded history, and in an understanding, a “feel” for the spirit of that time. And, of course, ultimately it should tell a good story, yet one that is historically plausible, that is, a story that might have actually happened.


Historians want to tell “what actually happened,” but must face the fact that they would never really know; writers of fiction want to tell a story that might have happened, but precisely those parts of it that elude the historian. Together, I think, in that no man's land between history and fiction, lies some truth about the past, a truth that tells us where we came from and who we are, that neither genre can retrieve on its own.

Q: The author Leona Toker said: “We do not know how it really was, and yet we know, often more than is good for us. After so many novelists have tried to write history, it is fascinating to see what happens when a historian is impelled to write a novel.” What do you think of that assessment?


A: I think that every historian worth her salt also wants to write a novel, at least in the sense that writing history at its best is always an act of writing and imagination. We find an old document and imagine the circumstances surrounding its creation so as to bring it and the world that produced it into life.


And I think that the novel as a particular genre of writing since the 18th century has always been rooted in history and society. In that sense, the separation between the two is not as rigid as some would think, at least not when we contemplate the best products of either genre.


And here is also the rub: we both know about the human soul and the human capacity for creativity and destruction more than we would perhaps want to know, and at the same time we are always trying to fathom them, as poets and historians have done since the beginning of humanity in all cultures known to us.


That quest is in a sense what unites those who tell stories about the past--historians--and those who tell stories about the human soul--poets and fiction writers.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I hope readers will first of all grasp the inextricable links between us and the past and how we can never understand what motivates us and why we act and think and feel as we do without delving into our own making in past generations.


The protagonists of this book are tormented by an event that occurred before they were born, whose contours are only vaguely known to them. It is only by literally and metaphorically returning to the scene of the crime that the descendants of the killers and the victims not only find a modicum of peace but also accomplish some reconciliation, even love.


In this sense this book is about empathy rather than feeling sorry for oneself or the other, by listening to the other's story and telling one's own. Perhaps what I hope is that readers do not latch on to what they think is their identity, or believe they must seek it, but that they seek the human in those previously perceived as outside the boundaries of empathy.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: As a historian I am currently writing a book based on multiple interviews with Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel belonging to the first generation born after the establishment of the state (my own generation) focusing on how they understand their link to the place and how it has evolved since their childhood.


I just spent three months in Israel and these in-depth interviews with over 50 people have had a huge impact on my own understanding of this question and what it tells us about the seemingly intractable conflict in Israel-Palestine.


As an author I am planning a new, large-scale novel tentatively called “The Wars of the Philistines,” which will trace the life and fate of the child born from that explosive biblical union between Samson and Delilah. More to come. 

Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I was born in Israel to a father born in Palestine and a mother born in Eastern Europe, and lived as a child and teenager in the US and UK, while also serving four years in the IDF (including the 1973 War) and then studying in the US and UK and living for lengthy periods in Germany and France. In that sense, I have many homes and no home, and like it that way. But I have always been curious about people's need for a homeland, however defined.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Omer Bartov.

No comments:

Post a Comment