Memory and Complicity: Migrations of Holocaust Remembrance

By Debarati Sanyal | Go to book overview

FOUR
Crabwalk History: Torture, Allegory, and Memory in Sartre

They began torturing one of them and we could hear what was
happening. We listened as his soul cracked. The sound of his voice really
twisted our minds and made our hearts stop.

IRAQI PRISONER recalling Manadel al-Jamadi’s death at Abu Ghraib

Someone scuttling crabwise like me, sniffing for the scents and similar
exudations of history.

— GÜNTER GRASS, Crabwalk

How can writing do justice to the sheer violence of torture while investigating its interlocking meanings at a par tic u lar historical juncture? In literature, the bodily encounter of torture has often given rise to the allegorical imagination and its displacements: Kafka’s executionary harrow, the scarred body of the barbarian at the heart and margins of Coetzee’s empire, or, as I shall suggest in this chapter, the crabs that haunt Sartre’s play The Condemned of Altona. It is as though torture’s embodied experience could be conveyed only paradoxically, by veering away from materiality into abstraction. Yet there is an understandable reluctance to consider the immediacy of torture through abstract modes of repre sen ta tion. The “body in pain” is now a universal figure for thinking about human rights abuses. The victim’s agony is part of a shared, yet deeply singular, truth: All bodies are vulnerable and subject to forms of suffering that defy transmission. Given this ethical focus on the victim, allegorical treatments of torture seem risky business, signaling too hasty an embrace of pain’s conversion into a fiction of truth,

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