Book Review | The Truth Only Fiction Can Touch

By | Jul 19, 2023

The Butterfly and the Axe
By Omer Bartov
Amsterdam Publishers,
210 pp.

After Italian philosopher Umberto Eco published his first novel, The Name of the Rose (1980), to worldwide critical acclaim and instant bestsellerdom, scores of major humanities scholars started thinking about fiction as a possible genre for them too.

What freedom! What audience! What money! Just imagine—a miraculous format in which you’re allowed to make things up. A few got their novels published, but more attempts languished in desk drawers and laptop files. Even Eco, despite many subsequent fine novels such as Foucault’s Pendulum (1989), never managed to recreate his first success.

Israeli-born historian Omer Bartov’s first novel in English—he published two in Hebrew early in his career—comes from different, more solemn motivations. A professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at Brown University, Bartov, 69, is universally respected as one of our great Holocaust scholars, particularly of its horrors in Galicia, the long-contested area of Eastern Europe now mainly encompassed by southeastern Poland and western Ukraine. It’s a place where local ethnic groups—mostly Jews, Poles and Ukrainians—on rare occasions got along, but at other times found themselves caught in murderous cycles: Poles killing Ukrainians, Ukrainians killing Poles, Poles and Ukrainians killing Jews, and invading Germans and Russians adding to the slaughters when not killing each other.

Bartov’s 2018 book, Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz

Readers of Bartov’s studies, such as Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz (2018), know that he operates like a master bricklayer who sets his bricks—hard historical facts—upon one another until he’s built a narrative strong as a fortress. In most of his books, Bartov resembles his doppelganger-narrator of The Butterfly and the Axe, who remarks to a relative obsessed with her family’s Galician roots, “I am just interested in the facts. As a historian, I try to keep a distance, to not get emotionally involved.”

Yet for all his painstaking research into archives in multiple languages over the decades, Bartov still could never unravel what precisely happened to his own family a couple of generations back when the horrors of the mid-20th century came to Galicia.

The Butterfly and the Axe issues from a remarkable decision by this meticulous historian. Frustrated by not being able to learn what happened to his forebears, Bartov declares as a matter of principle that he’ll rescue the lives he can’t document by filling in the gaps through a feat of imagination—this novel.

He explains in an author’s note and preface that The Butterfly and the Axe “contains autobiographical and historical elements but is ultimately a work of fiction. Its protagonists could have existed, however, and what happened to them is well within historical plausibility. My characters are intended to reimagine and bring back those who were eradicated and expunged from the historical record.”

The result unnerves as it rewards the reader, who must navigate through authentic aspects of Bartov’s life—including what appear to be family photos sprinkled through the text—while assessing invented perspectives from others.

Bartov could never unravel what precisely happened to his own family.

The novel begins in December 2016, as its unnamed narrator, an Israeli-born historian teaching in the United States for decades, gets called back to Israel to share the last days of his father, a notable Israeli writer. The narrator’s biographical details appear to track exactly with those of Bartov, whose father, Hanoch, a well-known Israeli novelist and journalist, died in December 2016. In Israel, the narrator reconnects with his distanced sister, who lives in England, and his first wife. He recites the Kaddish, sits shiva, leafs through family photo albums and grows irritated that no one remains to identify many of the people in the photos (his mother died years before). At the shiva he also meets Tali, a middle-aged woman, travel agent and distant relative—his great-uncle’s granddaughter—who knew his father and whose family came from the same Galician town. She wants to talk more with the narrator, and soon.

What follows is no airport read, chock-full of action, but a meditative fictional memoir that, like an Eco-esque novel, plays on letters and newly discovered documents—several of great length—which the narrator integrates into his already profound understanding of Galician tragedy.

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Tali, for instance, recounts her return in 2003 to Galicia and Lviv, where she met Andriy, an ethnically Ukrainian British historian with whom she began a romance. Andriy’s family history turns out to be intertwined with the fate of the narrator’s family. Over the course of the book, the narrator will encounter, and share with the reader, a series of revelatory documents, including letters from Andriy’s grandfather (who left Ukraine for England) and from Izi, a distant cousin of his grandfather who collaborated with the Nazis in their massacres of Jews in Ukraine.

Imagined document by imagined document, the narrator and reader are confronted by the flesh-and-blood detail of atrocities described in more analytical, “objective” form by Bartov in Anatomy of a Genocide. As a novel, The Butterfly and the Axe—its title gradually becomes heartbreakingly clear—grabs one’s attention and holds it. Bartov fills the gathered testimonies with blunt, down-to-earth savagery in the course of tying up family strands.

However, as a writerly experiment, The Butterfly and the Axe troubles as much as it illuminates. It gives us an Omer Bartov who, in both his undisguised authorial remarks and the thoughts of his narrator, appears to have lost faith in academic history as a deliverer of truth.

“Indicating where the line between truth and fiction lies is difficult, if not impossible,” Bartov writes in his author’s note, “because in certain cases there may be more truth in fiction than in the mere retelling of facts.”

Writing in his preface about the novel rather than as part of the novel, he expands on how he found himself, in 2018, deeply frustrated after completing Anatomy of a Genocide: “[W]hile I had spent 20 years researching this town, I ultimately had found nothing about how my own family members living there were murdered. I had recreated the life and death of a town going through thousands of documents and hundreds of testimonies, but my family had been eradicated and erased from the historical record, and there was nothing I could do about it. Yet I felt that I needed to do so in another way. Through my imagination, I needed to provide them with a credible life story, within the contours of history.”

Who would deny a great scholar the right to engage in literary self-therapy by filling in the gaps of tragic family history through a novel? And yet as Bartov explains more, and we gain greater insight into his state of mind through the thoughts of the narrator and Tali, a defeatist attitude toward history disconcerts.

“Straddling history and fiction,” Bartov continues in his preface, “this book acknowledges that historical study as we know it cannot do sufficient justice to those who vanished without a trace. They need to be brought back so as to make history whole…For me, as an author, as a historian, it is important to keep the ambivalence created by the impossibility of distinguishing between what is fact and what is fiction…Even if the past can only be reconstructed by imaginary characters within a historical framework, it does not mean that the narrative of this retelling is less true than an erratic documentary record that gives no voice to many of the victims of this era.”

That’s the sound, you can’t help feeling, of Omer Bartov’s heart overwhelming his head. At one point, Tali writes to the narrator, “I suspect that in your own objective, analytical way you are as broken as me.” She adds later that as people like them get older, they “become more fragile, more haunted by memories.”

One sympathizes with Bartov’s passion to fill in missing lives in The Butterfly and the Axe. We all want to memorialize our lost and loved. Think of those memories we hope will become blessings. Elaborate tombs and headstones. The roadside memorials that now spring up after mass shootings.

Yet reading The Butterfly and the Axe and Anatomy of a Genocide simultaneously, and appreciating both, one wishes that Bartov will regard those “incomplete” histories more favorably in the future and will take enormous pride in the mountains of fact he’s established for us. The freewheeling vehicle of fiction can take people to the suburbs of truth, but it’s the scholarship, evidence and documentation to which he’s devoted his life that takes us to truth itself. For that there’s no substitute.

Carlin Romano, Moment’s Critic-at-Large, teaches media theory and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania.

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