Susie Linfield in Guernica:
“Reconciliation” has become a darling of political theorists, journalists, and human-rights activists, especially as it pertains to the rebuilding of postwar and post-genocidal nations. Nowhere is this more so than in the case of Rwanda. Numerous books and articles on the topic—some, though not all, inspired by Christian teachings—pour forth. It can plausibly be argued, of course, that in Rwanda—and in other places, like Sierra Leone and the Balkans, where victims and perpetrators must live more or less together—reconciliation is a political necessity. Reconciliation has a moral resonance, too; certainly it is far better than endless, corpse-strewn cycles of revanchism and revenge. Yet there is sometimes a disturbing glibness when outsiders tout the wonders of reconciliation, as if they are leading the barbarians from darkness into light. Even worse, the phenomenological realities—the human truths—of the victims’ experiences are often ignored or, at best, treated as pathologies that should be “worked through” until the promised land of forgiveness is reached. This is not just a mistake but a dangerous one; for it is doubtful that any sustainable peace, and any sustainable politics, can be built without a better, which is to say a tragic, understanding of those truths.
No one has described the victims’ experience more astutely or intransigently than Jean Améry—writer, résistant, Jew—who was captured by the Gestapo in 1943 and survived (or, as he insisted, did not really survive) Auschwitz and other camps. Améry’s relative anonymity is a shame, for he wrote some of the most original, incisive, and discomfiting essays on torture and genocide ever penned—essays that are, sad to say, still strikingly relevant, and that challenge current ideas about what reconstruction after genocide might look like. Despite the restrained irony of Améry’s voice, his writings accumulate into an accusatory howl.