The Emigrants

Memory and loss, the German way. Four stories of German emigrants to various spots around the world (London, Manchester, New Jersey, Long Island, France), dispersed to the winds by the evil storm clouds of mid-20th century Germany. The narrator’s tale interweaves with his subjects so that “I” refers to several different characters along the way. The common theme is his seeking out background information to plump up the memories or stories he has of these tangential figures in his life. So he goes seeking, deciphering tiny handwritten journals, gathering old photo albums, visiting hospital rooms and old folks’ homes, climbing over locked gates to enter an old Jewish cemetery.
“I felt increasingly that the mental impoverishment and lack of memory that marked the Germans, and the efficiency with which they had cleaned everything up, were beginning to affect my head and my nerves.”
Terrific, moody writing, the kind that guts you and wrenches out your insides without you noticing. The ghost of a butterfly man haunts each tale, or boy with butterfly net, or Nabokov.
I stumbled onto this book by way of reading something online about a memoir Sigrid Nunez just published about Susan Sontag; The Emigrants had been recommended by Sontag to the Nunez as one of her favorites.
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Translated by Michael Hulse