Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 176 pages; 2013. Translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm.
Last Christmas I treated myself to all the Peirene Press titles that I did not currently own. My plan was to work my way through them over the course of this year. Alas, with so many books — and other obligations — vying for my attention, it was only last week that I managed to pull one from the pile: Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts.
This book is not your usual Peirene fare in the sense that it’s a little too long to be classed as a novella (it certainly took me far longer than two hours to read it), but I’m not sure that really matters. The book is a tribute to one woman’s amazing ability to survive everything that World War Two throws at her, including the execution of various family members, life in the Warsaw Ghetto, several stints in jail, torture by a cruel Gestapo officer (was there any other kind?) and internment in Auschwitz. And that’s only the half of it.
A woman’s love for her husband
The story is framed around a love affair between a woman, Izolda Regensberg, and her husband, Shayek, the “King of Hearts” of the title, who is taken away by force to a concentration camp. Over the next few years, Izolda does everything in her power to be reunited with him — indeed, she becomes the “Queen of Chameleons”: she changes her name, her hair, her occupation and her religion. She finds new ways to make money — selling goods on the blackmarket and acting as a secret message courier — in order to fund her journey to find her beloved.
Her life is constantly in danger as she passes herself off as a blonde-haired Catholic — and for much of the time she gets away with it. But every now and then she doesn’t:
When the train stops at Radom the German takes her to the police station.
Evidently you look like a Jew, says the policeman.
She’s genuinely surprised: I look like a Jew? I’ve never heard that before.
Can you say your Hail Mary? the policeman asks.
Of course. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with the… […] Blessed art thou among women… Because she is addressing the Mother of God, who is full of grace, she goes slowly, making every word count, to show respect.
Listen to you, the policeman laughs out loud. What normal person says Hail Mary like that? Usually it’s hailmaryfullofgracethelordiswiththee… You really are a Jew!
But despite this little “hiccup” she remains steely, determined and astonishingly resilient. Nothing ever seems to faze her: not even broken shoulders and a knocked out tooth. She simply dusts herself off and continues her quest.
And it is a quest in the truest sense of the word, for Izolda comes across so many challenges and obstacles and tests of courage, yet she never gives in. Not even the horrors of Auschwitz can dent her perseverance or enthusiasm. Indeed, she’s so self-assured she approaches Dr Mengele for a job!
Fast-paced adventure story
As you might imagine for a book that covers so much geographical territory —Vienna, Warsaw and countless other towns — the narrative has a rather fast pace. Sometimes events move so quickly it’s hard to keep up — it’s a catalogue of train journeys, some taken on purpose, others by force — and reads like a woman’s own adventure story.
The prose style is neat and clipped. It’s written in the third person but in the present tense, which lends the story a sense of immediacy, and it brims with tension throughout. It’s not sensational in the Hollywood sense, but it is a magnificent story told with exceptional restraint. Despite being set during the Holocaust, there’s not a shred of sentimentality or pity in it.
And yet it’s never quite clear whether Izolda’s love is truly reciprocated, and her inner life, along with Shayek himself, is frustratingly unknowable because she’s so stoic and self-contained. But on the whole Chasing the King of Hearts is the kind of story that makes you marvel at humankind’s ability to adapt and survive in the face of so much adversity. It’s also the kind of story that I know will remain with me for a long time to come…