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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Federman #5

This is the 5th post on Raymond Federman's last novel, SHHH.

A reader backchanneled me because she was concerned about whether the closet incident actually happened since Federman's own daughter seemed to question it, and what sort of aid such questioning might give to Holocaust deniers.

These are good questions. I am not an expert on Federman, I was merely reviewing his book. So if others want to jump in, I would be delighted. That said, from my reading of this book, Federman's fidelity is to a complex notion of 'honesty.' At the end of the afterword Pelton quotes him as saying,

"There is no distinction between memory and imagination, I would not falsify, because I would not lie, because when I walk down the street, my sisters might turn the corner ahead of me and meet me there, and I have to believe that, and how could I tell them when I saw them that I had lied."

By 'lying' I don't believe Federman is referring to getting his facts straight. I believe he is talking about getting his memory straight, all the while knowing that it is riddled with imagination. Did he get put in the closet? Or did he put himself there? Did his mother tell him to "shhh'? We will never know, not because we were not there, but because memory and imagination are profoundly interconnected. To deny this is to be dishonest.

As for Holocaust deniers, in order to keep them from doing any profound harm, we must keep them out of political power. On one level, it is a political struggle of our imaginations, and our stories, against theirs.

But this is not good enough for me. On another level I want to securely say that we Holocaust believers are in the right. And here is where I believe Federman does run into trouble, and he is conscious of it. He writes of himself in the book:  "Federman ... your readers are ... going to wonder what's happening to you." My contention is that it is not simply his telling the story of childhood that pushes him to "the edge of the imposture of realism," but the need to tell his story of the Holocaust.

Perhaps the sheer weight of witness testimony is what we need. With so many stories, partly imaginary as with all stories, of the Holocaust, denying it becomes quite difficult. That said, it may be wishful thinking. How often are people more swayed by facts and evidence rather than ideology?

I end with the rather depressing conclusion that Holocaust deniers are probably more a political, rather than an evidentiary, problem. Because you can get some people to believe anything. Hence, Federman: be honest to your memory and what it constructs for you, not to what it is supposed to construct. Resist easy stories.

In this sense Federman is a hero. He could have written his own great success story: escapes the Holocaust, comes to America, fights in Korea, gets an advanced degree, gets a professorship, becomes an important novelist. It was perfectly available to him. Federman tried to write this novel, then destroyed it, because it was a lie, because it forced his life to a frame, namely, the traditional Western plot-line. He chose to become a lesser-known avant-gardist and remain honest.

This individualistic honesty leads to a complex worldview, which tends to resist the simplifications of Fascism and other authoritarian ideologies.


  1. So, we are still in the dark about the closet incident. It may or may not have happened. Maybe Federman never told his family about the incident so his daughter did not believe the story when she saw it in his book. Perhaps something very different happened that Federman did not want to remember so he chose to tell a story about being in the closet instead. Bottom line is that the human mind is not a perfect or impartial recorder of events.

    If the closet incident did not really happen then it is rather interesting that he chose "Shhh" as the title of his book. Maybe the title then refers to Federman trying to quiet some of the voices in his head. Or, maybe he is trying to tell the reader that he is letting us in on a secret.

    Even without the closet incident, I agree that his achievements make for a great sucess story. I think that his greatest success may be the most basic one, that he survived and was able to subsequently add another generation to his family.

  2. Great stuff, Jill. Thanks for commenting. I am going to bow out of the discussion at this point. If no one else writes, then you have the last word!