The case of Herman and Roma Rosenblat’s love story and what critics called their “fake memoir” definitely makes us reevaluate the narrative role of truth in a story.
Why is it important that a memoir be a true accounts of its author’s life? Obviously, it reflects the way its author remembers it. Yet as we know, the list of memoirs pulled by their publishers grew by one last week to include Angel at the Fence by Herman Rosenblat. He had told a purportedly true story about his concentration camp experience except for one little detail: he made up the girl coming to the fence, throwing apples over it to help him survive. Then, as told by him, he met the same girl on a blind date years later, they recognized each other and married.
Why the literary and publishing scandal? Isn’t it agreed by all a memoir is a partial version of a personal reality, rife of inaccuracies and bias?
I think the indignation is right, in this case. Truth carries greater narrative weight in a story than plausible invention, to the point of justifying rejection of the story if it is fake. The assurance of veracity here gives a real-life confirmation of the archetypal connection between love and salvation. It is the extraordinary, almost extra-natural yet real intervention that saved a young boy when no other hope was possible that caught the attention of potential readers, TV viewers and Oprah.
If the story were presented as fiction, it wouldn’t have gotten the huge positive reception the memoir had. A fictional story would be yet another example of the pattern of redemptive love, known from fairly tales. Even the subsequent encounter of the main characters on a blind date mirrors the climax of agnition in fairy tales. But if true, the power of the story comes from the idea of its achievability. Redemptive love wasn’t just a promise anymore; it had become a real-life possibility, made to look even more powerful on the background of the dire circumstances in which it occurred. Robbing the audience of the extra-ordinary beauty of a factual salvation was like telling a child Santa didn’t actually exist, even if presents would keep coming.
Several years ago similar objections arose about the film The Lives of Others, in which a GDR secret service official, in charge of spying on the dissident relationships of a prominent playwright, decides instead to protect him from the state’s totalitarian machine.
The film was not a memoir, of course. It wasn’t even claimed to be based on true events, apart of a historically correct reality. However, critics of the film denounced it for inventing a wrong – naive, washed-out, romanticized – version of reality, and especially rejected any comparisons to Schindler’s List. They said that the crux of the difference was that, in fact, there was no such actual Schindler in East Germany’s secret police and making one up would be a distortion of truth – even artistic truth such as plausibility.
In fact, wouldn’t we be scandalized by a story of a made-up high-ranking Nazi official secretly saving Jews?