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[Eli Park Sorensen] Fraudulent memoirs and the autobiographical pact

According to the literary scholar Philippe Lejeune, autobiographical texts rest on the assumption “that there is identity of name between the author (such as he figures, by his name, on the cover), the narrator of the story, and the character who is being talked about.” This constitutes what one could call “the basic grammar” of the genre of autobiography, or, as Lejeune puts it, the “autobiographical pact” established among narrator and reader. 

Solid as this definition may seem, several critics have pointed out the unintended ambiguity inherent in Lejeune’s definition. For what do we actually mean by “identity”? That there is a discrepancy, however infinitesimal, between the writing self and the written self goes without saying (Facebook comes to mind) ― but how large may this discrepancy be before the text ceases to be autobiographical?

One typically thinks of the autobiography as a genre of remembering. As the literary scholar Linda Anderson argues, however, the genre also promotes a narrative desire of “becoming, within the realm of the symbolic, one’s own progenitor, of assuming authorship of one’s life.” In this perspective, autobiography involves less a process of remembering past events; rather, it constitutes an attempt to actively seek out ― and thus become ― the person I really am or ought to be, but perhaps never became. The autobiographical text thus becomes a search for the authentic life. Perhaps one could even say that this is one of the main reasons why people write autobiographies in the first place; to show the world who they really are.

If the autobiographical text simultaneously involves a process of remembering events as well as a desire to discover a self that was never fully articulated ― quite often two conflicting impulses ― it resists clear and straightforward genre definitions like the one proposed by Lejeune. On the other hand, if one cannot define ― in a clear and straightforward language ― the genre of autobiography, is it ever possible to define a fraudulent memoir, a text falsely claiming to be autobiographical?

Binjamin Wilkomirski’s “Fragments: Memories of a Childhood 1939-1948” provides an intriguing example of this problematic. Written from the perspective of a very young child, the text was immediately hailed by numerous critics and scholars as an exemplary Holocaust memoir upon its release in 1995. When it was demonstrated some years later that Wilkomirski’s text was in fact a fabrication ― i.e. when it was proved beyond doubt that the author was not a Holocaust survivor; that he had spent the war years not in Auschwitz but in Switzerland; and that he was not even Jewish ― the author withdrew from public, and his memoir was removed from the bookshelves.

What makes this case so compelling is that Wilkomirski seemed to have been genuinely convinced of the authenticity of his story ― a tragic or tragically deluded figure, rather than a deliberate fraud. Years before writing his book, Wilkomirski had been seeing a psychiatrist with whom he managed to “recover” a series of fragmented memories that kept troubling him. Wilkomirski attempted to reconstruct these traumatic, incoherent and hazy memories by voraciously reading Holocaust memoirs and history books, as well as undertaking several research trips to Poland and Latvia; all this, he claimed, to confirm that what he vaguely remembered from his childhood was indeed real.

By the time he wrote “Fragments,” Wilkomirski possessed a considerable knowledge of Holocaust history, having amassed a vast library of reference material related to the period. Retrospectively, one might say that whereas his trauma seems genuine, he discovered the wrong autobiography, someone else’s life. The separation from his mother at an early age, the time spent in various foster homes, the disorientation and stigma he felt being sent from one family to another, the repression of his prior identity ― all these aspects might possibly have laid the foundation for his suffering and identity confusion later in life; the void which eventually led him to identify with ― and claim ― someone else’s life narrative.

In publishing his memories, Wilkomirski called out from the void in the language of testimonial or confession, addressing readers with the autobiographical genre’s implicit statement “I was there; this is how it really was.” Now that “Fragments” has been exposed as a falsehood, the text challenges readers to distinguish between the author’s genuine trauma and its formal expression, the Holocaust narrative. As we try to “un-read” the text’s Holocaust narrative, what emerges is less the traumatic narrative of Wilkomirski’s early life, but rather a void, an emptiness. And this is perhaps the work’s ultimate message: the transmission of an experience of unpreparedness, disorientation, up-rootedness ― one that is finally transmitted to us, the readers, once we have uncovered the true origins of “Fragments,” behind its adopted Holocaust narrative. If anything, it is a traumatic experience of radical erasure: original memories distorted, deleted and exorcized to the extent that they can no longer be called authentic, one’s own ― and, therefore, can only be articulated in another form, in someone else’s form.

Wilkomirski’s text thus presents us with the paradoxical case of a fake autobiographical narrative that nonetheless contains a core of authenticity ― in itself non-existent, absent, an experience of radical erasure ― which can only be articulated, represented and understood, falsely, in a fake autobiographical narrative.

In a discussion of false memories and the genre of autobiography, the sociologist J.P. Roos suggests that we might read autobiographies as we read biographies. A biography ― at least one that strives for the truth ― involves a narrative perspective that draws on “triangulated stories, where different members of the same social or family group discuss the same events.” It is a narrative perspective which is always open to revision, interpretation; not a truthful account in an absolute sense.

In the case of “Fragments,” it was when journalists and scholars began to uncover the biography of the person Wilkomirski that the book’s authenticity came under severe doubt; that is, when they confronted his autobiographical claim by way of “triangulated stories” ― interviewing neighbors, ex-girlfriends, his biological relatives.

At the same time, it is easy to forget what apparently drove Wilkomirski to claim a false identity in the first place, what made him identify with the Holocaust child survivor character. Wilkomirski grew up surrounded by silence ― the silence of “members of the same social or family group,” in Roos’ words; people telling him again and again that his haunting memories were nothing but a “bad dream.”

On several occasions during his text, Wilkomirski explicitly points out that his book is written and published with the intention of breaking this silence, and hence to reclaim erased memories that were dismissed as a child’s nightmares, fantasies ― something to be forgotten. Wilkomirski’s attempt to reclaim these erased memories ― his attempt to reclaim what he believed was his authentic identity; who he really was ― led him through a false language, the Holocaust narrative, which paradoxically silenced him once again. 

By Eli Park Sorensen

Eli Park Sorensen is an assistant professor in the College of Liberal Studies at Seoul National University. He specializes in comparative literature, postcolonial thought and cultural studies. ― Ed.