Götz and Meyer

Was totally blown away by David Albahari’s Götz and Meyer. Almost sat down to re-read right after finishing. Some haunting but wonderful segments:

“They never even spoke of their own, or my, Jewish identity, convinced, I guess, that if evil were to come knocking at our door again, the silence would make us invisible. So what I knew was limited to the most general facts from textbooks, history, films, and works of literature, which didn’t in any way suggest that those facts had anything to do with me. History was, after all, impersonal, at least as a discipline, it couldn’t exist at the level of the individual, because then it would be impossible to grasp. That was why every history came down to searching for the smallest and largest common denominators, as if every person were the same, and all human destinies were equal. Perhaps it might seem that these claims were unfounded, but I will try to explain them with a simple example. History drily informs us that the German occupying forces issued an order on April 16, 1941, to register and identify all Jews, and that by July 13 that same year, as is stated in the periodical business report that the Municipality of Belgrade submitted to the Ministry of the Interior, nearly 9,500 Belgrade Jews registered. This is where history has no more to say. All you need to do, however, is to wonder how each of those 9,500 men, women, and children felt when they donned the yellow armband or the six-pointed star, and history begins to crumble and fail. History has no time for feelings, even less for trauma and pain, and least of all for dull helplessness, for the inability to grasp what is happening. One day you are a human being, and the next, despite the armband or perhaps precisely because of it, you are invisible. No, that is not history, it is a catastrophe of cosmic proportions, in which every individual is a separate cosmos. Nine thousand five hundred universes shift from a steady to a gaseous state, more than merely metaphorically, especially when you think of those five thousand souls who became acquainted with the back of Götz and Meyer’s truck.” (34-35)


“The completed family tree, drawn on a large piece of white paper, lay on the desk in my sitting room. I carefully wrote out all the names and dates, underlined in black marker all the family lines, circled in red all the names of people who were still alive. I started drawing the first version from above, descending in all directions, and then I stopped, thinking that the network of life and death shouldn’t look like a fern dangling from a flowerpot suspended from a hook on the ceiling. The next time I started from below, at the spot where the tree should have its roots, and only then was I able to breathe a sigh of relief. Above the dense treetop, my branch protruded like a young shoot stubbornly refusing to admit that the tree had withered. At the age of fifty, especially taking my ailing spine into consideration, I would have been better of speaking of myself as a stick rather than as a young shoot, but therein lies the absurdity of every representation of life, and any representation of reality will never be the same reality itself, and there is nothing I can do about it. So, I figured, if I couldn’t dive into life, perhaps I could dive into death. Hence Götz and Meyer. By the way, Götz was called Wilhelm, and Meyer’s name was Erwin. I never saw them and I could only imagine them, as I did from the moment when I first stumbled upon their names, and as I shall do until the moment I close my eyes forever — I have always been appalled at the prospect of dying with my eyes open – and go off to wherever it is that nearly all my relatives went.” (44-45)


“Everyone likes being appreciated in the workplace, why not Götz and Meyer? Meyer even confessed to me that he felt his heart beat faster and that later, when he recalled those days, he would shiver. Look at this: I am beginning to imagine myself talking with people whose faces I don’t even know. I knew precious little, indeed, about the face of most of my kin, but in their case I can at least look at my own face in the mirror and seek their features there, whereas with Götz and Meyer I had no such help. Anyone could have been Götz. Anyone could have been Meyer, and yet Götz and Meyer were only Götz and Meyer, and no one else could be who they were. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that I constantly had this feeling that I was slipping, even when I was walking on solid ground. The void that was Götz and Meyer so contrasted with the fullness of my relatives, if not of their real beings at least of their deaths, that my every attempt to reach fullness required that first I had to pass through void. For me to truly understand real people like my relatives, I had first to understand unreal people like Götz and Meyer. Not to understand them: to conjure them. Sometimes I simply had to become Götz, or Meyer, so I could figure out what Götz, or Meyer (really I), thought about Meyer, or Götz (really I), meant to ask. This Götz who was not really Götz spoke to this Meyer who was not really Meyer. My hands tremble a little when I think of it all. Nothing easier than to stray into the wasteland of someone else’s consciousness. It is more difficult to be master of one’s own fate; simpler to be master of someone else’s. (65-66)

Author: Brad Bolman

Brad Bolman is a PhD student in History of Science at Harvard University.