Even if we take her word for it that the events in these chapters ‘unfold as they’d actually happened’ and that she didn’t adapt them ‘to a narrative thread’ (though such disclaimers are as old as storytelling), they are still strung along a narrative thread which is taut and neatly woven. There are characters and dialogue, and imaginative use of language (the snow falling on Munich is said to be vibratile – ‘quivering’, though Milano Appel translates it as ‘dithering’), and a story that begins dramatically in medias res, with the escape from Dachau, and develops over the course of a deliberately limited timeframe. Deviation is a well-made novel, in other words – which doesn’t make it any less autobiographical, or any more or less dishonest than most memoirs. Given the extremity of its events, it also shows up how little is at stake in much of what is now labelled ‘autofiction’.
The opening sections take the form of vivid, set-piece accounts of days of imprisonment and escape... she seemed both courageous in the face of the mental and physical hardship she endured, and shockingly deluded...This is a book that wholly merits publication, primarily because it reminds us in its vividness that the concentration camps were particular places inhabited by particular people, rather than sites of abstract horror. It’s rare to find a story of the camps that’s so feisty and so eccentric. But D’Eramo’s perspective remains curiously undeveloped, as though her mind was frozen in time by the ruins that trapped her body.
The section in which she describes her crippling injury reads like an example of a previously unknown literary genre, auto-hagiography... She offers various mutually inconsistent explanations for her self-destructive behaviour... She is not wise: readers are likely to wonder whether she is even sane. Her thinking is incoherent. Her story-telling is muddled. Her prose is uneven. For all that, Deviation has a fierce compelling idiosyncrasy to it. D’Eramo’s account of the camps is full of surprising nuances...and it explores an unfamiliar aspect of the Third Reich.
The novel evokes this repression through its non-chronological structure, fractured narrative, and shifting viewpoint. Nightmarish and surreal in its detailed but emotionally vacant depictions of the labour and death camps, Deviation takes the reader into a horrifying world of chaos and depravity, in which the sole imperative is survival and where “the absolute normality of crime, physical violence, informing on others, and perversion as routine practice in day-to-day dealings” all rapidly come to seem natural and familiar.
The sheer perversity of this move will be hard for many readers to swallow. Chalk it up to PTSD, or to a crazed appetite for self-reinvention. In any case, it was equally indigestible for the author, who erased the whole episode from her mind for decades. “That this is how it happened,” she writes, “I later denied even to myself. I had to turn 50 before acknowledging that I had been repatriated. What I said initially — so often that I came to believe it myself — was that I had been deported to Dachau with my comrades after the strike.” In time, D’Eramo also blotted out other parts of her agonizing Wanderjahr. Such erasure became a form of anesthesia. “Deviation,” then, is not only (or even primarily) a narrative of incarceration. It’s a book about memory suppression, and about the slippery nature of identity itself, slapped together from docile facts and devious fictions.