Wednesday, February 3, 2010

REALITY VS. IMAGINATION: more from Katharine Weber

Continuing the conversation about what is real in a novel:

Monday night I gave a talk about True Confections at Yale to a highly educated audience. There was a lively discussion, with a lot of fun questions about candy and candy history (ask me about Lifesavers! Ask me about Black Crows!), as well as questions about how I wrote the book and what sort of research I did. It became evident that a number of people present thought that Zip’s Candies was a real candy company, or at the very least a thinly-disguised fictional version of a real company, while at the same time many (if not most) of the people there assumed I had invented The Madagascar Plan. Tuesday morning I taped an interview with the host of a popular Connecticut Public Radio affiliate. As we compared the nougat and peanut ratios in Baby Ruth, O Henry! And Snickers bars I had brought into the studio, she said that she had assumed that I made up The Madagascar Plan.

Sadly, I did not invent the Madagascar Plan. The credit goes to the Third Reich. An early version of the plan to locate all the Jews of Europe on Madagascar had been championed by Hermann Göring in 1938, but it was not until 1940 that the Plan gained sufficient momentum to become a near-reality. The Nazi official who masterminded the details was Franz Rademacher, the leader of the Judenreferat III der Abteilung Deutschland (aka Jewish Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). He wrote a memo outlining the logistical details in which he declared (in German, of course), "The desirable solution is: all Jews out of Europe." He proposed that the Jews transported to Madagascar would be useful hostages to help make guarantee "future good behavior of the members of their race in America."

Plans for this Jurassic Park for Jews fell apart when the British fleet was not available for transport after all (which is to say when the British did not lose the Battle of Britain, as anticipated by the Third Reich). And so this first solution was abandoned, and instead there was the Final Solution.

What does the Madagascar Plan have to do with True Confections, a novel Booklist declared has “a wacky comic sensibility” and the Cleveland Plain Dealer called “a hoot with an edge”? In my novel, Julius Czaplinsky, the left-behind younger brother of Eli (founder of Zip's Candies in New Haven, Connecticut in 1924), gets wind of the Plan, and so he leaves Budapest for Madagascar to get there ahead of the crowd, to stake a claim and get established before the other four million Jews of Europe show up. And so he does just that. But of course there are no ships on the horizon. Ever. He is the first, last, and only Jew on Madagascar.

But true to Ziplinsky form, he thrives and prospers, even in this unlikely setting. After the war, his remarkable cacao and vanilla plantations bring the next generations of Zip’s Candies Ziplinskys together with the next generations of Madagascar Czaplinskys, with very complex consequences.

And so I didn’t exactly rewrite history (unlike, for example, Michael Chabon’s very entertaining Yiddish Policeman’s Union, about a colony of “Frozen Chosen” in Alaska) so much as tuck my fiction neatly into an actual historic event.

Everywhere I go for readings and discussions of True Confections, I learn that many readers have assumed that the Madagascar Plan is fiction, while also believing that Zip’s Candies is real. I am bemused. Why are so many readers looking for reality in all the wrong places?

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