THE HUMAN RACE by Robert Antelme


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Published in France in 1947, here translated for the first time, Antelme's memoir of his year (1944-45) in a German labor camp was written to assuage his guilt at surviving and to deal with his depression. Stylistically, and in its attempt to turn the prison into a microcosm, it resembles e.e. cummings's The Enormous Room, the fictional representation of cummings's experience in a French prison camp. An anthropologist by training, Antelme (husband of Marguerite Duras) was arrested for participation in the Resistance and was sent first to Buchenwald, then to Gandersheim, where, among an international collection of political prisoners, he worked in a factory and slept on the straw-covered floor of a church. Condemned to death by work rather than in the crematoriums, the prisoners suffered a range of indignities, discomforts, and deprivations; beyond food, warmth, sleep, they lost human contact, such rituals as funerals and holidays, and even simple greetings that acknowledged their humanity. The camp functioned on a system of parasitism: like the ubiquitous lice tormenting the unwashed prisoners, the criminals in charge of the prisoners depended on their underlings' labor, and these overseers, in turn, answered to the SS. With little to affirm his humanity (looking in a mirror, a gift of bread), Antelme feared becoming ""nothing but plumbing for soup, something that they fill with water and that pisses a lot."" And much of the book involves just that: getting food, picking nits, and, his only freedom, disposing of bodily waste. An intense, unsparing, and brutal homage without anodyne, philosophical comfort, or affirmation. Antelme's homecoming, recounted by Duras in The War, provides a positive closure to the experience.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1992
Page count: 298pp
Publisher: Marlboro