You have to be kiddin’ me
They wouldn’t do those unspeakable things”
That’s a Flaming Lips quote up there, from their 1992 song You Have to Be Joking. When I first heard it, I thought about DM Thomas‘s 1981 novel The White Hotel. I was 23 or 24 when I read what would become his most famous and controversial work. I was just a young man; similar, I suspect, to my impression of the narrator in the Lips tune: a young person who is just waking up—really waking up— to some disturbing truths about the world.
I certainly knew about the Holocaust from school, from documentaries on television, and from magazine articles. I even had parents who were alive when Hitler’s Final Solution was revealed to the world, and we talked about it with each other. But I never really felt the horrifying nature of this event until I read this novel. We armchair travelers go many places, and occasionally we are taken to a place that can only be described as life changing.
The White Hotel is a strange novel. The reader often has to wonder if particular passages are dreams, fantasies, or realities. It is the story of a woman named Lisa. We read an erotic poem she has penned. We follow her psychoanalysis and therapy for “sexual hysteria” by Sigmund Freud. We learn of her childhood and a traumatic event during her young years. We see her in a torrid love affair at The White Hotel. Ultimately, we follow her to her very end at Babi Yar.
Millions died at the hands of the Nazis in the real world, but that huge number can be too abstract and unfathomable to process and feel. One person died in a work of fiction, and I was depressed for days.
Even Thomas’s final chapter, in which Lisa and the other fallen are reborn to continue in an afterlife that strangely resembles our own world, did not really lift my spirits back up. Perhaps it is not meant to. Perhaps this final chapter is about us, continuing our lives after tragedy, because that is the only sane choice.
Something inconceivable has happened, but we march on.
Related: Not coming to a theater near you: