If Luce d’Eramo’s Deviation (1979, first English translation 2018 by Anne Milano Appel; publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux) proved difficult enough to read, it’s been even more tough to write about. This is not your typical Holocaust book, if any such work could be described as typical. D’Eramo begins her story literally in the shit, with a matter-of-fact description of a Dachau work crew assigned to clean out Munich’s sewers and the toilets in factories and public buildings.
But the worst was when they brought us in to rural villages to empty the cesspools: out there, there are no sewer pipes, When the black holes fill up you have to empty them with buckets and eventually climb in yourself. Only then did they give us masks and rubber boots, and we worked covered in shit until we finished.
A lot of people got sick and there were some who died from toxicity.
The tone here - flat, direct, unemotional, notably understated – seems off-kilter, as though d’Eramo might have been writing about household chores: ”Cleaning out sewers is a more varied job than it may appear at first: there are assorted chores involved.”
This is hardly the only time that d’Eramo will use understatement in a forceful way, nor is it the only time the reader will be confronted with bodily wastes in Deviation, a narrative of “shit, urine and gangrene” that places a heavy emphasis on the corporality of experience, of the factuality of the human body faced with monstrous indignities. At the same time, the sang-froid with which d’Eramo seems to weigh her terrible experiences extends throughout Deviation’s 350 pages, a troubling work of searching retrospection written across a quarter century, from 1953 to 1977. Deviation’s four parts, each focused on a distinct period of d’Eramo’s war-time and post-war life, read like memoir or a collection of autobiographical writings, with all but one written in first person (the other cleverly employs third person to emphasize how d’Eramo is perceived by others). That the book is labeled a novel and referred to as such its author is a confounding ascription to which I’ll return later.
The author herself seems like someone out of a fiction: the 18-year-old daughter of an official in the Fascist puppet government of Salò, herself a Fascist, whose fealty to the cause leads her to travel to Germany in the winter of 1944 out of a refusal to believe the rumors of deportations and atrocities in German camps. Arriving as a volunteer worker in the Westerners’ section of alagerat the vast IG Farben facility outside of Frankfurt, d’Eramo comes face-to-face with the wretched realities of camp life and begins to fight against Nazi oppression as well as other internees’ wariness, given her credentials as a Fascist, an intellectual, a member of a privileged economic class and possibly even an informer. Adept at languages (she notes her fluency in Italian, French, German and Russian; a knowledge of Latin and Greek; and conversant in a host of other languages), d’Eramo becomes a conduit for linking the displaced diaspora of Europe she encounters wherever she happens to be, a skill that earns her a role in the unsuccessful strike she helps organize at IG Farben. Although Deviation’s curious structure mixes up chronology (one of multiple resonances of the book’s title), the reader can loosely piece together a path from the author’s time at IG Farben to her departure, possible return to Italy and subsequent capture by the Gestapo, a chain of events that takes her through 12 weeks in Dachau, from which makes a daring escape during an air raid then finds her way to a transit camp. She eventually lands in Mainz, where on February 27, 1945, while helping dig out survivors in a building bombed by the Allies, she is crushed by a falling wall, her spine and pelvis shattered, her forehead split, the injuries to her back so severe that her lungs can be seen through her gaping wounds. The cataclysm forced upon d’Eramo by her decimated body entwines with that imposed by the Nazis to form the subject of Deviation’s challenging narrative.
Taken strictly as a work about the Nazis, Deviation gives further evidence of the necessity of such works to help shine light into every corner of that history, to flesh out details. I learned, for example, of the differences between the various camps set up by the Nazis:
There are five types; in addition to the transit camps for everybody (Durchgangslager), there are the camps for free workers where volunteers are sent (Freiarbeitzlager); camps for prisoners of war (Kriegsgefangenenlager); labor camps (Arbeitslager), where those deported following a roundup are interned along with hostages, the families of political prisoners, partisans, and foreign deserters; and finally there are the concentration camps (Konzentrationslager), which hold the victims of the racial purges – namely, Jews – as well as political suspects, saboteurs, illegal prostitutes, pimps and lesbians, common criminals, thieves, murderers, fences, rapists, and the list goes on, “which is not to mention the so-called final solution camps, you get me? Annihilation.”
D’Eramo also reveals a corner of Holocaust history new to me concerning those who volunteered to work in German factories, and delves into the enforced stratification of various ethnic and national groups as well as the varying conditions both between and within the camps. In contrast to the Westerners wing of the work camp, for instance, Russians and Eastern Europeans suffered under dramatically different conditions with regard to hygiene, overcrowding and the quantity and quality of food rations. D’Eramo expresses astonishment that no one has yet written about the presence of some three million escapees circulating in the Third Reich, but unfortunately fails to fill in this story. She has an eye for catching memorable detail: the SS tattoos found in the armpits of the unit’s members; the bizarre apparel among some refugees who picked through ruined homes of the wealthy; a “lake of suicides,” so named because of the many young women who drowned themselves rather than face the shame of having gone with Nazis; and particular indignities she suffered herself, such as burns she received on her chest and hands from being assigned to carry blocks of frozen sulfuric acid. There are grim descriptions more common to such works, of the journey to Dachau in a cattle car, and a memorable account of lice in the Dachau barracks:
Most our time, however, is spent at the camp, where we pass the long hours of the day killing body lice.
We strip and, by the feeble light that filters through the windowpanes, the grayish light from the yard, we search through our clothes, all of us women in the corner, hunting for those repulsive insects; we ball them up between our fingers like children do boogers, and crush them. I have a smooth rock I use for the purpose.
Some are very swollen, gray with pale streaks, their step wobbly from their big bellies; others have dark spots, some intensely brown; the ugliest, the most sprightly, splatter like worms. There, in the cobwebs of light in the mud-colored shadows of the large room, those multipedes clinging to the fabric of our clothing and blankets gleam like bronze.
…I’ve also discovered that body lice keep you warm.
Not all of d’Eramo’s commentary is descriptive; she engages philosophically with the “why” of the Holocaust, the reasons people submitted, how they acted with cruelty out of a sense of being automatons or simply reacted without caring at whose expense. She rages against “the social circumstances that allow some people to pass through war unscathed” and at economic discrimination, which she identifies as the basis for racial discrimination. She comes to see the Nazis as having nothing behind their masks of authority and intentional cultivation of a fear so great that “even our morale is in their hands,” and initially tests her theory on the camp’s German Shepherds by learning how to tranquilize the dogs by mastering her own fear.
The second section of Deviation focuses on d’Eramo’s catastrophic injury and long, slow return from what her doctors assume will be certain death. A part of this section entitled “As Long as the Head Lives” refers to d’Eramo’s having been left paralyzed by her accident. Emerging at last into an ability to communicate with others, d’Eramo painfully adapts to her new reality, becoming a formidable force despite and due to her infirmities. In one hospital, she and a 16-year-old Polish orphan set up a “Good Mood Room,” a black market operation accepting cash, food and alcohol for other patients to gain admission to parties and to get advice, comfort or a boost of encouragement. She discovers a sustaining religious faith, but a harsh one in which God is “perfect, owing to the detachment that left Him objective; that is, owing to his indifference,” and only half-jokingly chastises him as “Dieu Nazi!” for his having taken her desire for a sacrifice too literally, wondering whether “we might one day find out that God is paralytic.” Such musings are often delivered with a dirt-dry humor tinged with bitterness, but following a failed suicide attempt, d’Eramo acquiesces to a lifeforce so engrained in the body that her tissues appear to be regenerating as though themselves engaged in activism. We learn later that she earns a doctorate in philosophy, marries, has a son, and commences a writing career encouraged by the likes of Alberto Moravia, Elio Vittorini and Ignazio Silone.
Either of d’Eramo’s traumatic confrontations - with Nazism and with her destroyed body - could have made for an independent, powerful narrative, but to these d’Eramo adds an unexpected third that makes Deviation’s difficulty not simply one of subject matter. The last section of the book, from which the novel takes its title, details a ruthless self-examination, a scouring of ideas and presumptions in d’Eramo’s “thirst for the depths” to get at the veracity of her own experience. She battles against what her friend Vittorini calls “the oppression of memory,” an effort to tease out fact from fiction, exclaiming “To hell with literature” and making determined attempts not to allow her undependable memory or the desire to whitewash her own actions get in the way of arriving at the truth.
One might query the need for such justification given the wrenching and wretched trials through which d’Eramo passes, but her questions are hardly idle: behind her she leaves a trail of others who did not get out, of those who, lacking her intellectual aptitude, ferocity, and access to resources of privilege - and/or simply because of the deliberate, capricious and arbitrary cruelties created by the Nazis and occasioned by war - ended up raped, tortured, shot, gassed. The “literature” that d’Eramo seeks to tamp down keeps interfering, presumably one reason she refers to Deviation as a “novel.” Beset by traumas external and internal, her struggles with memories repressed and fractured from psychological and physical pain as well as by a cascade of drugs to which she becomes addicted. Trying to avoid her own “swerves” and “obstinacies” and discover which among her memories actually occurred, d’Eramo seeks all the while to find some conviction that she did right rather than profit from the privilege granted to her by politics and class, which occasionally intervene behind the scenes to rescue her from lethal punishment. She also employs the word “deviation” to refer to a specific memory she claims to have repressed, that surrounding her return to Italy between the IG Farben lagerand her arrest and incarceration in Dachau.
D'Eramo’s wrestling eventually settles into a truce between warring sides of herself.
It seems incredible but what saved me from the silence of the rationality I was striving for – so that I finally said to myself , if I have to be my own Gestapo, I give up – in short, what unexpectedly saved me (an unhoped-for intervention) was the literary compartment of my brain.
“What are you complaining about?” it asked me, as it usually does, telepathically, to soothe me. “If things are really as you fear, from a compositional point of view you can only rejoice: you don't have to understand the repression – your search fails, and that’s that. You even have a nice conclusion: you reveal to the reader that the story of your deviation was a dream in which your imagination enacted one of the most tenacious (and vain) aspirations of all mortals, the eternal human dream of correcting the past.
Almost needless to say, though, the “nice conclusion” is not the end of d’Eramo’s restless efforts with regard to uncovering memory.
This constant revising of the past, however, makes d’Eramo’s story, for all of its striking indignation and vivid testimonial contributions to grasping the Holocaust, a problematic narrative. What is one to believe from “a woman who’s always told herself imaginary stories,” as d’Eramo calls herself, and who expresses an existential need “for things not to have gone any differently”? What to make of omissions and elisions with regard to her relationship with her family, or with such a relentless focus on d’Eramo’s own internal struggles with memory? It’s small wonder that Deviation is such a difficult narrative. Towards the end of the book, d’Eramo finds strips of paper, cut-up letters she wrote back to her family revealing the conditions of the lager, which she takes as concrete evidence of the factuality of her experiences and of her having acted in good faith with regard to her democratic ideals and commitment to life. But even this evidence – almost certainly a deliberate literary allusion to Gabriel D’Annunzio’s writing of his poem “Nocturne” on strips of paper following his own near-death accident and lengthy, bed-ridden recovery - raises questions for the reader as to what is and isn’t fiction here. Given the enormity of suffering within Deviation's pages, perhaps that's irrelevant.
Deviation became a bestseller when it appeared in Italy, and I wondered whether some of its appeal might have been in the tortured manner with which d’Eramo confronts her own history, a soul-searching no doubt common (albeit probably to a less extreme degree) among millions of Italians who subscribed to Fascism. It would obviously be outrageously facile for a reader of today - at a distance of 75 years, good health, and freedom from the horrors allowed by the political structures of Nazism - to second guess what he or she might have done in d’Eramo’s grim circumstances. But I don’t think I’ve ever read a Holocaust narrative so knotted, so deviant in the multiple positive and negative resonances of the word, or that has left me so exhausted by its ruminations. Deviation, like “Nocturne,” is undoubtedly a remarkable text, a work to appreciate for the fierce determination and intelligence of its author, for its poetic phrasing and challenging construction, its insights and testimonials to a tale that must be told. It is also a book I’m rather relieved to be done with.
I read Deviation along with Dorian Stuber of the Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau blog.