Deviation

Farrar, Straus and Giroux   2018

 

Luce D’Eramo’s Deviation, originally published in Italian in 1979 and recently translated into English, is based on the author’s experiences in a German labor camp during World War II. As an eighteen-year-old, the narrator runs away from home to volunteer for the Fascist cause; she doesn’t believe rumors of atrocities and wants to see firsthand what is happening. However, due to her participation in a workers’ strike at the labor camp she escapes to, she ends up being transferred and detained in Dachau concentration camp.

Even though many of its details are autobiographical, the book is categorized as fiction—seemingly due to D’Eramo’s struggle to recall the details of this traumatic time, but also to allow her the creativity and imagination to fill in times when memory failed. The book is divided into four parts, none of which follow a strict chronological order. Early on, readers find out that the narrator eventually escapes Dachau. Immediately after this disclosure, D’Eramo takes readers to the narrator’s experiences in a transit camp, Thomasbrau, where she stays for a few months at the end of 1944. Here, she learns about the sexual deviancy and brutal realities of a place where bombs are exploding and shelter is a luxury.

D’Eramo employs other unusual narrative techniques as well. The first half of the book is written in first person. At times, the narrator describes her situation in the style of a diary entry: “I now know that I am more drawn to the vagrants at Thomasbrau than to anyone in my earlier, proper life. I’m fearful of the hold such a short time has taken on me, and I feel like my life will never be as genuine and secure as it is now.” Toward the beginning of the third section, “First Arrival in the Third Reich,” D’Eramo switches to third person, where she details the workers’ strike that led to her being sent to Dachau. The narrator’s dreams, hallucinations, and surreal experiences—such as being forced to undergo a disinfection process while naked with a group of other newcomers—confuse her sense of reality. In the book’s introduction, translator Anne Milano Appel offers explanations for this, in addition to other helpful analyses of the nonlinear narrative. Appel writes, “Because the connection with the past is unstable and volatile . . . any reconciliation between becoming and being, between past and present, seems impossible.” In the fourth section of the book, D’Eramo discusses her writing process and how certain memories have “faded into the shadows.”

At a pivotal moment in the book and in her life, D’Eramo describes the bombings that occurred on February 27, 1945, when she assumed the war was over. While the narrator tries to save people stuck under the debris of destroyed buildings, the wall of a building suddenly collapses on top of her, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. A large section of the book focuses on her hospital stay, during which she feels imprisoned in her own body and struggles to understand her future.

It is not until this hospital stay that readers learn why she ended up in a labor camp and at Dachau in the first place. She explains the chronology of her experiences to the comrade commander, helping the reader gain clarification on the narrator’s memories: “I was eighteen when the Badoglio government, following the armistice of September 8, 1943, upset the front against the Allies during the war and the German roundups began; people were terrified, confused, left to their own devices, hiding . . . I realized that the only way to learn the truth for myself about Fascists and anti-Fascists . . . was to ascertain it firsthand.” Even at the book’s ending, the author avoids a tidy resolution, and still tries to make sense of her own experiences.

Deviation is both a story about understanding the terrors of World War II and fascism through the experiences of a young woman, and a story about how human fears and realities of war impact memory. D’Eramo’s writing techniques effectively challenge the reader to understand this era from a new viewpoint. Not only will enthusiasts of World War II literature find D’Eramo’s account fascinating, but so will any reader interested in the impact of memory on truth and storytelling.



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