When you think it can’t,
that it won’t come
with nothing in sight,
just night in front of you,
it does comes through,
the smallest strand,
light among darkness
just barely enough
to see you through.
When you think it can’t,
neon garden in flight
a spinning vortex
circling till the end of time.
Immutable rules govern our world such as the law that no matter the time or space in which it occurs, evil committed by humans against other human beings leaves its mark, and that regardless of the amount of time it takes, the truth will always surface. These ideas, as well as others, are explored in depth in Richard D. Bank’s I Am Terezin.
With meticulous historical research and great care, Bank has painted a vivid picture of the people and personalities associated with the events that took place at Theresienstadt during the Nazi Holocaust. I Am Terezin is a revolutionary memoir – unlike others, it is written from the point of view, not of a person but, of a physical entity, the camp itself – an omniscient narrator. The voice of the camp comes alive to relay the ominous reality of itself, and it tells the reader what Theresienstadt really was, a concentration camp and not the paradise ghetto for elderly Jews the Nazis claimed it was.
The changing tone and perspective of the omniscient voice is compelling. The voice of the camp takes on many roles – a caretaker in one moment, a silent observer in another. It can be argued that the voice of the camp is none other than that of a lamenting God, unable to intercede in the world of human atrocities and forced to watch insidious actions play out. No matter the tone or perspective, the abuse, injustice, and crime which occurred at Theresienstadt is resurrected for the reader, and the reader comes to learn intimately about the lives of innocents who were forced to be bound within the walls of Terezin. Each word and sentence of I Am Terezin is written with great care, paying homage to the many who lost their lives at Theresienstadt. In taking part in the arduous undertaking of researching and telling the story of those at Terezin, Bank has completed the ultimate labor of love in tribute to his grandparents, Ludwig and Sophie Frank, who were imprisoned at but subsequently survived Theresienstadt.
Bank is masterful in his knowledge of the history of Theresienstadt, and I Am Terezin is a must read for scholars of the Holocaust, as well as those interested in bettering the human condition. Reading this book will help the vigilant to reaffirm the oath of never again. Never again should sadism be allowed to hide behind laws and systems meant to dehumanize. Never again should humanity allow the atrocities of genocide to occur. Never again should any people be persecuted for the faith they follow or for the way in which they worship the Divine.
Saturday’s ritual, discourse and diners,
talking while walking to our
regular place, The Green Kitchen.
Exiting the pressure cooker,
worries are left at the door.
Havoc halts as we talk, laugh, breathe.
Forgetting brimming calendars,
it’s solace, just you and me,
fresh silverware, an easy cup of coffee.
There are a variety of techniques that writers can use to add more precision and depth to their descriptions. Writers of all genres, including fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry, can benefit from reading, observing, and understanding the techniques with which Thornton Wilder creates his full, detailed, and believable descriptions, but reading Wilder’sThe Bridge of San Luis Rey will be particularly beneficial to writers of historical fiction. Referring to events, situations, and actions that took place in a historical context, and having characters interact with their environment, in specific ways, are the techniques by which Wilder creates a believable setting as well as masterful descriptions.
In Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the author is able to effectively recreate the historical period in which the novel is situated, the early sixteenth century. The reader becomes fully immersed in the novel’s reality because the customs, culture, and characters’ interaction with their environment are expounded upon in exact detail.
Consider the following paragraph taken from the book:
“At last the time came to satisfy the supreme rite of Peruvian households looking forward to this event: she made the pilgrimage to the shrine of Santa Maria de Cluxambuqua. If there resided any efficacy in devotion at all, surely it lay in a visit to this great shrine. The ground had been holy through three religions; even before the Incan civilization distraught human beings had hugged the rocks and lashed themselves with whips to wring their will from the skies. Thither the Marquesa was carried in her chair, crossing the bridge of San Luis Rey and ascending up into the hills toward the city of large-girdled women, a tranquil town, slow-moving and slow-smiling; a city of cyrstal air, cold as the springs that fed its many fountains; a city of bells, soft and musical, and turned to carry on with one another the happiest quarrels. If anything turned out for disappointment in the town of Cluxambuqua the grief was somehow assimilated by the overwhelming immanence of the Andes and by the weather of quiet joy that flowed in and about the side-streets. No sooner did the Marquesa see from a distance the white walls of this town perched on the knees of the highest peaks than her fingers ceased turning the beads and the busy prayers of her fright were cut short on her lips,” (Wilder, 32).
A scene of striking detail is painted, and the reader finds that this world is one which is squarely situated in the past. It is a time in which people make pilgrimages to shrines, and place religious ritual at the center of their lives. Specific details show us a world that is simple, “slow-moving and slow smiling…a city of bells.”
Writers can create similarly detailed descriptions by knowing the time period about which they are writing. For those writing historical fiction, it is especially important to research and be well acquainted with the subject matter at hand. Not knowing much about the history of Argentina, I wouldn’t try to write historical fiction situated there; however, if I were to spend adequate time researching the area, and understanding the customs, practices, and history of Argentina, then I could consider writing about it.
In the following examples, notice how Wilder places us in the setting. For example, he uses a small detail, in the passage, by mentioning that it is a city of “large-girdled women.” Girdles are something from the past, and this detail is helpful in situating the reader in that past.
Wilder also moves his characters to interact with their environment, and each other, in specific ways. One of the novel’s central characters, the Marquesa de Montemayor, is carried on a chair across a bridge, an action that isn’t commonplace in the modern world. Historically, however; a greater distinction between classes existed. Society was broken up into an aristocracy and a slave class. In such a time, an aristocrat being carried around, on a chair, would have been more commonplace.
Wilder understands another important aspect of early sixteenth-century Peru, the time period in question, and uses this knowledge to enhance his writing. Although the scientific revolution had already started taking place in the early sixteenth century, most people did not have an understanding of science or the reasons behind everyday events or disasters, and this lack of information led to fear. Therefore, religion took a central importance in daily life because it was used to combat fear of the unknown. Understanding this, Wilder captures the essence of the interaction between religion and fear by showing the Marquesa’s stance towards events in her life. During the course of her pilgrimage, “no sooner did the Marquesa see from a distance the white walls of this town perched on the knees of the highest peaks than her fingers ceased turning the beads and the busy prayers of her fright were cut short on her lips.
However, the ways in which Wilder crafts his descriptions are not limited to use in historical fiction. These techniques are important, in one way or another, in other types of fiction as well as creative nonfiction. Although I don’t write fiction, the idea of using a specific context and well-thought-out details are still important to my writing. Keeping these methods in mind, Thornton Wilder created a unique, believable, and detailed world in The Bridge of San Luis Rey. It is a world so real that the reader will certainly be lost in their visit to it, and may choose to return time and again.
Wilder, Thornton. The Bridge of San Luis Rey. New York: Harper Collins. 2003.