Sunday, May 13, 2012

W, or the Hunger Games

I have not read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  Nor have I seen the movie yet although I thought it looked interesting.  Having said this, hearing a synopsis of the story’s plot brought to mind a novel that I have read called W, or the Memory of Childhood (W ou le souvenir d’enfance) by Georges Perec.  Perec is a Franco-Jewish author who wrote in the latter half of the twentieth century.  I believe that he is criminally little read and little known-- at least in the United States.  Most enthusiasts would probably agree that Life, an Owner’s Manual (La vie mode d’emploi) is Perec’s masterwork, but W-- which first introduced me to Perec-- is a great, thought-provoking novella.

W’s title plays on the fact that, in French, “doble ve” sounds like “doble vie,” viz. a double life.  Thus, fittingly, the novella switches back and forth between two different narratives.

The first appears to be a more-or-less straightforward autobiography in which Perec struggles to reconstruct his childhood based on the few memories and mementos he has of that time.  Born in 1936, Perec became an orphan during the Second World War.  His father was enlisted in the French army and died during the 1940 German invasion while his mother was deported and most likely killed in a Nazi death camp.  Georges, meanwhile, had been sent to live with his aunt and uncle in a small village in the French Alps.  A central focus of this half of W is how difficult it is to recall memories of his childhood and how he is forced to fill in the ellipses with educated guesses based on history.  One wonders to what extent this is due merely to the time that has past and the dearth of physical evidence still in his possession and to what extent he might have consciously or subconsciously forgotten his childhood so as to avoid reliving the traumas of war and of his parents’ deaths.

Alternating with this autobiography is the story of “W,” a fictitious, totalitarian city-state (at one point we’re told that it’s located on an island near Tierra del Fuego) where society is built around frequent Olympic foot races.  The women of W are kept sequestered in an impregnable fortress while the men are divided into different camps which compete against one another.

As the book progresses, the reader is given more and more details which paint and increasingly unsettling picture of life in W.  The champions who win the races are given special privileges and treated to feasts while the losers must make do with their scraps.  This unequal treatment of course results in an unfair advantage in future races.  There are also races where the man who finishes last is executed.  Unsurprisingly, sexual abuse of boys is common in the all-male camps.  Meanwhile, every so often, the men compete for the right to participate in a race where the fairer sex appears.  The women are given a head start on the racetrack before the men are released-- each with the goal of grabbing whichever woman he can and having his way with her right there on the field.  This dehumanizing ritual represents their only opportunity to have sexual intercourse.

But true horror of W is only revealed at the very end: one might imagine that the men of this spartan society whose lives revolve around nothing but athletics would be setting records, but we are told that-- in reality-- due to malnourishment and poor living conditions no one can run a mile in under 10 minutes.  It is in this last moment that the allegory, and the connection between W and Perec’s own childhood, comes into focus.