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The Emigrants Paperback – September 17, 1997
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A meditation on memory and loss. Sebald re-creates the lives of four exiles--five if you include his oblique self-portrait--through their own accounts, others' recollections, and pictures and found objects. But he brings these men before our eyes only to make them fade away, "longing for extinction." Two were eventual suicides, another died in an asylum, the fourth still lived under a "poisonous canopy" more than 40 years after his parents' death in Nazi Germany.
Sebald's own longing is for communion. En route to Ithaca (the real upstate New York location but also the symbolic one), he comes to feel "like a travelling companion of my neighbor in the next lane." After the car speeds away--"the children pulling clownish faces out of the rear window--I felt deserted and desolate for a time." Sebald's narrative is purposely moth-holed (butterfly-ridden, actually--there's a recurring Nabokov-with-a-net type), an escape from the prison-house of realism. According to the author, his Uncle Ambros's increasingly improbable tales were the result of "an illness which causes lost memories to be replaced by fantastic inventions." Luckily for us, Sebald seems to have inherited the same syndrome. --Kerry Fried
One of the best novels to appear since World War II. -- Review of Contemporary Fiction
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All of the stories end in tragedy, and only one is told even in part as a first-person narrative. It gives the book a sense of remove, and the beauty of Sebald's language makes it feel like almost like an elegy in prose form. The power of loss and memory is gorgeously and movingly conveyed...every one of these stories gently rips your heart out. As someone who doesn't particularly enjoy short stories, I found that this was a very well-done collection of them. There aren't too many, and they are all arranged around a similar theme in a way that really works and keeps the stories flowing together and seeming like one piece. Like four movements to a piece of music. I would definitely recommend it, but maybe if you're not in a low mood already, because as lovely as it is, it's a downer.
This book at first seems an easier read than "Austerlitz", but Sebald's focus of piling memory on memory creates at least as strong an effect as in that book. In "The Emigrant", one person's story opens out into another's, until all the complexity of a past descends. It is not a cheerful book -- the protagonists die, either by their own hands or in distressing circumstances -- but it is a very beautiful and powerful one. The description of Manchester, for example, vividly recalled to me the experience of being a foreigner in 1960's Britain, and the section on Istanbul is perhaps the loveliest evocation of that city that I have ever read.
"The Emigrants" is about identity, and memory, and about the great mystery of the 20th century -- how could so many people have gone mad enough to allow the Holocaust? Sebald does not arrive at an answer, but he tells us a great deal about the question.