In a way, The Emigrants is slightly obnoxious. As with most of Sebald’s work (or so I’ve been told), the text is filled with photographs of places or people or things that can somehow be related to the plot. It’s not a narrative technique I’ve encountered before, but I’m good to never experience it again if I don’t have to. I like using my imagination when I read, and it feels kind of patronizing to suggest that the reader needs visual cues. I understand that photographs are poignant for underlining the theme of memory in the novel, but there were too many of them that didn’t have any discernible connection to the plot.
Like with so many other books, I appreciated the book’s meditation on trauma and lost memory. Apparently, Sebald’s father was a Nazi officer who never spoke about the things he did or saw during the war. You get the sense as your reading The Emigrants that Sebald is trying to uncover those memories of World War II which were denied to him by his father. The whole book revolves around the narrator collecting the memories of four German emigrants who are simply perplexed at their own survival. Their pain is carefully illustrated with respectful amounts of curiosity and compassion on the part of Sebald.
The Emigrants is a good book but not one I necessarily look back on with fondness. I honestly like a lot of books that are really depressing because sad things can make for a beautiful or thought provoking read. This book isn’t really one of them because it doesn’t leave you with anything other than pity for a few fictional characters. A non-fiction examination of real-life emigrants would be way more compelling and it probably would leave you with that lasting effect this novel should have had. This book was very well received upon its publication and for many other readers, I can see it being a hit. However, this one just wasn’t for me.