home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

la station saint-martin est fermée au public

12 october 2017

Most novels feature a disclaimer of some sort on the reverse of their title pages or elsewhere: all is imaginary, if I've hit on the truth it's a coincidence. But Joseph Bialot's La station Saint-Martin est fermée au public bears this note: "Ce récit est tiré d'une histoire vraie [This account is drawn from a true story]."

Bialot also doesn't call his book a roman, a novel, or a nouvelle, a novella; he calls it a récit, a word that can mean "story" either true or fictional, so I translate it above as "account." Lines are blurred, but I don't think there are epistemological quandaries here. Bialot's account is true in some ways, and things like it certainly happened, perhaps even one or more things very like it. But he uses the techniques of fiction to get at its truths.

Bialot's protagonist has survived Auschwitz, as Bialot did, and has returned to France barely past the age of 21, as Bialot also did. But unlike Bialot, he does not remember who he is, or where he's supposed to return to. Called "Alex" for want of his own name, the protagonist undergoes treatment in a mental hospital, where with the aid of some American serum, he is able to recall Majdanek, Auschwitz, and the "death march" westward after the Red Army drew too near to the Polish extermination camps. Alex speaks perfect French and remembers having been in the southwest of France at some point. But he has no idea where he used to live.

Alex's memories of the Lager, evoked under the influence of the serum, are italicized to set them off from the main novelistic narrative, and often include footnotes that help the reader orient the narrative in its historical context. The formal aspects of the narrative thus become quite complex, though it never dissolves into any kind of postmodern chaos. There is the postwar "now," and there is Alex's recovered "then," and they play out in parallel. The bizarreness of the récit is the bizarreness of the War and Holocaust in themselves.

Luckily, a nurse named Agnès, attracted to the young and resilient Alex, invites him to come with her to Paris, where she's found work and an apartment. For me the most moving part of La station Saint-Martin is a collection of brief sketches of French civilians who come to the Hotel Lutétia on the chance that their loved ones will show up there after returning from deportation. Every one has a story, a story that fits as a counterpart to the experience of the Lager on the other side. Stories of the Lager – Auschwitz, Theresienstadt, Dachau – tend to converge on the experience of dehumanization, the reduction of all impulses to an animal hunger. The stories of those left behind are all different: a mutual existence suddenly shattered, over some minor infraction, some misapprehension, some rien du tout.

A hospital friend of Alex's, Clotilde, wonders why he was deported:

Tu étais résistant? Communiste? Gaulliste? … Juif, peut-être? … Si tu es juif, tu seras le premier que j'aurais rencontré. Juif … Bizarre … Tu m'as pourtant l'air d'un type normal.

[Were you in the Resistance? A Communist? A Gaullist? … Maybe a Jew? … If you're a Jew, you'd be the first one I ever met. A Jew … Weird … You seem like a normal guy to me, anyway.] (32-33)
Clotilde is only 21 or so, too, and in the end far more deeply troubled than Alex himself; hers is one of the counterpart stories, and survival for her proves impossible. Alex is indeed a Jew, though he doesn't know it yet. Stripped down to his skin, bones, and organs, he has re-entered a world where he cannot fathom what has happened to him because he happened to be a Jew. Seventy-odd years later, we still can't.

Bialot, Joseph. La station Saint-Martin est fermée au public. 2004 Paris: Fayard, 2005.