Amos Oz, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, holocaust, Israel, Poland, Publisher, Setting, Vintage, war

‘Touch the Water, Touch the Wind’ by Amos Oz (translated by Nicholas de Lange)

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 158 pages; 1992. Translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange in collaboration with the author.

It’s not often a book goes over my head, but I’m afraid this 1973 novella by Amos Oz was a bit lost on me.

Touch the Water, Touch the Wind was the author’s fourth work of fiction.

The story arc traces what happens to a married couple after they are separated in 1939 during the Second World War and then reunited on the eve of the Six Day War in 1967.

When the Nazis advance into Poland, Elisha Pomeranz, a Jewish watchmaker and mathematician, evades capture by hiding in the woods not far from his home, reinventing himself as a magician and woodcutter. His wife, Stepha, stays behind, using her beauty and intelligence to survive.

When the war ends, Stepha moves to Moscow and becomes a high-ranking member of the Communist Party, Elisha makes his way to the Jewish homeland, via Austria, Hungary, Romania and Greece.

A master of reinvention

The story is mainly focused on Elisha’s experience, for when he arrives in Palestine he sets up a watchmaker’s shop and settles into a fairly routine, mundane life but one in which he is happy.

Later, after a sordid affair with an American woman who turns up on his doorstep, he worries that he is being watched by forces unknown. To become invisible, he reinvents himself as a shepherd tending a small flock on a kibbutz in the northern part of the country, where he tutors science to local schoolchildren to get by.

Later, he writes an important research paper that is published in a scientific periodical, attracting the attention of the world’s press and scientific community.

The article is by no means modest or insignificant : according to the headlines in the evening newspaper he has succeeded in solving one of the most baffling paradoxes connected with the mathematical concept of infinity.

But while some doubt the authenticity of Elisha’s discovery, his fame offers a form of protection.

Eventually, things come to a head on the kibbutz for even those in a position of power, while cognizant of the fact that they have a “mathematical genius” living amongst them, doubt his commitment to the cause.

A collage of prose styles

There’s a lot in this short novella that went over my head, perhaps because I just don’t know enough about the different aspects to Jewish life and history, but more likely because it’s written in an unusual style that I found hard to like.

The first third in particular reads like a Gothic fairytale with elements of magic realism thrown in for good measure making for pretty heavy going. There are later sections that feel like reportage, while others are lyrical and dotted with beautiful descriptions of landscapes and scenery. This constant switching in style made it hard to get a handle on the story as a whole.

That said, I suspect this collage of prose styles is deliberate. Because if I got anything out of this difficult novella it is that Jewish people have survived for centuries by using all kinds of techniques, whether that be assimilating, going to ground or pretending to be something that they are not in order to get by. For instance, Elisha’s constant reinvention of himself, first to evade the horrors of the Holocaust and later to avoid those pursuing him for nefarious purposes, is mirrored by the author’s constant change in prose style and tempo.

The text is also heavy with religious and sexual metaphors that began to wear very thin.

Not having read anything by Amos Oz before, I’m not sure how this book fits into his oeuvre and whether it’s indicative of his work as a whole. I’d be interested in hearing from others who have read his books and can perhaps suggest another novel that may be more suited to my tastes.

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov), which is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck 

Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Fiction, Heather Morris, historical fiction, holocaust, Poland, Publisher, Setting, Zaffre

‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ by Heather Morris

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Fiction – hardcover; Zaffre; 288 pages; 2018.

I’ve read a lot of Holocaust novels in my time (and quite a few this year, it would seem), but The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris, is a rarity: it’s about finding love in the most hellish of places and ends on such a joyous note it’s hard not to be deeply affected by it.

It is based on the true story of Lale Sokolov, a Jew from Slovakia, who was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942.

Here, Lale is ordered by SS officers to tattoo numbers on the arms of his fellow prisoners, a horrid task he finds deeply upsetting to carry out. But the privileged position of Tätowierer — the tattooist —  affords him specific “luxuries” (a room of his own, for instance, and extra rations) and gives him access to certain areas of the camp, which means he can exchange money and jewels stolen from Jews for much-needed food to keep others alive.

Love affair behind the razor wire

Lale, it seems, is a bit of a wheeler and dealer, a cheeky chap with a ready smile and a willingness to help others, but he’s also a romantic. One day, in the queue of new arrivals waiting to be tattooed, stands a frail young woman called Gita. Lale scratches ink into her arm and falls quietly in love.

The novel traces Lale’s courtship of Gita, who was sent to nearby Birkenau, and their subsequent love affair conducted via smuggled letters and clandestine visits outside her block.

Some two years later, when Gita is shipped out of the camp, Lale thinks he will never see her again, but events conspire otherwise. The circumstances of their coming together in the immediate aftermath of the war are nothing short of miraculous — and it would be a hard-hearted reader indeed who did not feel deeply moved by their reunion. I finished this book with tears coursing down my face — not from sadness, but from joy.

A secret brought out into the open

The circumstances in which The Tattooist of Auschwitz was written are no less miraculous. Lale’s son Gary wanted someone to tell his parent’s story. He introduced writer Heather Morris to his father, who was then in his late 80s and living in Melbourne, Australia, where he and Gita had married and settled down to start a family and run their own business.

Over the course of three years, Morris visited Lale two or three times a week to hear his tale, which he’d kept secret for more than 50 years. When Lale died in 2006, Morris hoped to turn his story into a film. More than a decade later, she transformed the screenplay into a novel, and it’s been a bestseller ever since.

It’s not a perfect novel, but it’s heartfelt and the writing style, simple and to the point, moves the story along at a good pace. There are vivid descriptions of the horror and misery of the camps, but this is juxtaposed by small acts of kindness and resistance. It’s a story that shows that even in the darkest of places good things can happen and, as clichéd as this sounds, love can conquer all.

You can read more about the book and Lale’s life in this article on the BBC News website.

This is my 5th book for #AWW2018

Author, Book review, Fiction, holocaust, literary fiction, New York, Poland, Publisher, Setting, USA, Vintage, William Styron

‘Sophie’s Choice’ by William Styron

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 635 pages; 2004.

First published in 1979, Sophie’s Choice by William Styron is often regarded as a landmark of holocaust fiction, not least because of the controversy it stirred up at the time of publication: Styron was accused of revisionism, because he presents the view that the Holocaust was not solely or exclusively directed at the Jews and that the camps were merely an initiative to secure labour for the German war effort; and the book was banned in several countries because of its explicit sexual content.

I read it because I was looking for something meaty and compelling to get me through a long-haul flight to Australia, so I packed it in my hand luggage and then spent the next three weeks carting it around with me, reading it on planes, in quiet moments before lights out, in the sun on a succession of balconies and decks — always in places where my surroundings seemed vastly more pleasant than the contents of the book.

I didn’t actually finish it until I was back in the UK. And even though it’s a rather brilliant novel, intimate in tone, languid in its storytelling and with a breadth and scope to far outweigh many contemporary novels, I was rather relieved to get to the end. I have very mixed feelings about the book as a whole.

The plot

Before I explain what I did and didn’t like about Sophie’s Choice, let me give you a brief recap of the plot. If you have seen the 1982 film adaptation starring Meryl Streep (for which she won an Academy Award for Best Actress) this might already be familiar, but I haven’t seen the movie and am unsure how faithful it remained to the book. Forgive me, then, if I repeat stuff you know already.

The story is told from the point of view of a writer named Stingo looking back on a seminal year in his life some 30 years earlier. In 1947, fired from his job working for a big book publisher in Manhattan, he moves into a cheap boarding house in Brooklyn to begin working on a novel. Here he befriends two boarders living in the rooms above his — Nathan Landau, a Jewish American, who is a biochemist, and Sophie Zawistowska, a Polish Catholic, an Auschwitz survivor. Both Nathan and Sophie are in a rather tempestuous relationship, which becomes increasingly more violent as the novel progresses.

Stingo becomes a close friend of the couple, especially Sophie with whom he is secretly in love. She trusts him enough to tell him about her troubled life in Poland and confesses a series of shameful secrets that continue to plague her. One of these secrets — and this is where I’d advise you skip ahead to the next paragraph if you haven’t yet read the book — is the fact that upon arrival at Auschwitz, a cruel camp doctor forced her to decide which of her two children should be sent to the gas chamber immediately and which should be allowed to live on in the camp. It is this horrendous decision upon which the entire plot of the novel hinges, because after this confession Sophie plunges into a deep alcoholic depression from which there is no return.

Here’s what I liked about the story:

1. The prose style is intimate and feels confessional. The sentences are long and often overly verbose, but there’s a lot of heart in the story-telling. It’s almost as if Stingo has pulled up a chair by the fire to tell you — and only you — how a single year of his life left a marked impression on everything that followed. This style helps avoid the story plunging into a pit of despair. While the bits about Auschwitz and Sophie’s life in Poland — which are told flashback style — are heavy going and morbid, on the whole the book has a light, floaty feel because the prose doesn’t take itself too seriously. And there are some quite funny moments too — especially the early chapters about Stingo’s job.

2. The structure is non-linear, so the morbid bits (Auschwitz) are interleaved with more exciting elements (Brooklyn). A succession of major revelations being dropped in when the reader last expects it also helps maintain interest and intrigue over the course of more than 600 (long) pages.

3. The characterisation is superb. The main trio of characters are incredibly well drawn — you expect them to walk off the page — and even the subsidiary characters, such as Stingo’s father and his landlady, feel vibrant and real.

Here’s what I didn’t like about the story:

1. It’s too long. There’s quite a lot of repetition — about slavery, about Sophie’s beauty, about Nathan’s increasingly chaotic and unpredictable behaviour — so could easily have lost a couple of hundred pages in a ruthless edit and the book would not be the poorer for it.

2. There’s too much explicit sex in it. I get that it’s written from the point of view of a sex-craved 22-year-old male virgin, but do we need to read about it on every second page? And, yes, it’s the late 1940s before the ready availability of contraception, but it seems unfair to portray every woman as being frigid or — excuse the language — cockteasers because they won’t put out. This point of view is so overtly male (and sexist) I could barely contain my rage reading it!

3. There’s too much emphasis on Sophie’s beauty. As per point 2, I understand that Stingo is obsessed by Sophie, but constant reference to her bust, her backside, her pouty lips and her sexual exploits with Nathan wears thin very quickly. This sexual objectification shifts the emphasis from Sophie’s psychological trauma towards her physical attributes so that we never get a real handle on how her experience affected her mentally. The idea that she was far too beautiful to deserve the Nazi’s cruel treatment begs the question, did only ugly people deserve to be exterminated?

And don’t get me started on the way her sexual appetite is depicted.

Those negative points aside, there’s no doubt that Sophie’s Choice is a 20th century classic. It’s ambitious — in scope, in structure, in storytelling — and tells a horrific story in a compassionate, compelling way. It’s slightly unweildly and not without its faults, but as an examination of human failings, of racism, of religion, of politics and American life in aftermath of World War Two it feels authentic, important — and powerful.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Counterpoint, Fiction, holocaust, Lily Brett, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Lola Benksy’ by Lily Brett

Lola Besky by Lily Brett

Fiction – paperback; Counterpoint; 272 pages; 2014.

On initial glance, Lily Brett’s Lola Bensky appears to be a light-hearted novel about a young Australian rock journalist who makes a name for herself at one of the most exciting times in music history: the late 1960s. But there’s a darker edge, for Lola Bensky, the bright and bubbly 19-year-old at the heart of the story, is the child of Holocaust survivors and her life is governed by a particular kind of psychological trauma.

A fictionalised memoir

The story is a thinly veiled autobiography of the author’s own life. Brett was born in Germany in 1946 to Auschwitz survivors who later emigrated to Melbourne, Australia as refugees. In the 1960s she was a rock journalist for Go-Set, Australia’s most renowned rock magazine at the time, interviewing singers and musicians, such as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger and Pete Townshend, who later became rock’n’roll icons.

The early part of her ‘novel’ is a tantalising recap of her time in London in 1967 interviewing these major stars, followed by her escapades in America, where she  covered the Monterey International Pop Festival and spent time hanging out with the likes of Mama Cass, Brian Jones and Cher.

But before the name-dropping gets too much, the narrative morphs into a much deeper exploration of Lola/Lily’s life in Australia — and later New York, where she settles with her second husband, an artist — and the ups and downs she navigates as a mother, daughter, wife and writer.

Intergenerational trauma

The novel largely pivots around her life as the child of Holocaust survivors. Interestingly, as Lola points out, “Australia had the highest percentage of Holocaust survivors per capita outside of Israel”:

Their children were the survivors of their parents. Quite a few of them were the product of an overly vigilant neglect. They had parents who noticed every pound they gained or when they wore their hair the wrong way,  but they didn’t notice any sadness, any bewilderment, any loneliness or anxiety in their children. They didn’t notice any absences at school or money stolen or most other symptoms of a child in trouble.

For most of her life Lola has a problem with her weight. She follows fad diet after fad diet, constantly stresses that she is too fat and makes a concerted effort never to “look at herself below the neck”. She attributes her obsession to her mother, who says cruel things about her appearance, because she “hates people who are fat”.

“She was in a Nazi death camp and the only people who were fat in there were some Nazis and the few prisoners who were doing something that was helpful to the Nazis.”

Lola also wastes an inordinate amount of time having fantasies in which she is either scarred for life through some horrendous accident or dies from a ferocious illness. Again, she attributes this to her parents, and a deep-seated psychological need to rescue them from the horrors of the camps.

Black comedy

If you think this all sounds a little too heavy, think again. Lola Bensky might revolve around some dark and important themes, but this is nicely balanced out by a light, almost frothy tone of voice, and an undercurrent of humour. On more than one occasion I laughed out loud.

There are some very funny set pieces, too, such as this conversation with Cher and Sonny Bono:

“I think we look a little alike,” said Cher, looking at Lola. Sonny came back into the room. He hovered around Cher as though he was nervous of what she had been saying. “Do you think we look alike, Son?” said Cher, looking at Lola.
“Other people have said that,” said Lola. “But I always reply that I am twice Cher’s size.”
“I can see the resemblance,” said Cher. “Can you, Son?”
“No,” he said, looking perplexed. “I can’t see any resemblance at all.”
“It’s okay,” said Lola to Cher. “You don’t have to worry about looking like me. You look nothing like me.”
“You sure don’t,” said Sonny.

For other takes on this novel, please see Bill’s review at The Australian Legend and Kate’s review at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

Update: Australian Women Writers Challenge

This review will count towards my aim of reading and reviewing 10 books by Australian women as part of this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge.

You can find out more about the challenge via the official website.

This is my first book for #AWW2018.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Germany, Haus Publishing, holocaust, literary fiction, Monika Held, Poland, Publisher, Setting

‘This Place Holds No Fear’ by Monika Held

This-place-holds-no-fear

Fiction – hardcover; Haus Publishing; 277 pages; 2015. Translated from the German by Anne Posten. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Monika Held’s This Place Holds No Fear is an extraordinarily beautiful novel — about survival, the power of love and the strength of one exceptional marriage.

It’s also about the Holocaust (fittingly, it was published on Holocaust Memorial Day and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz just six weeks ago), but it’s quite unlike any Holocaust novel that I have read. That’s because it’s not so much about what happens to those who are sent to the death camps while they are there but explores what happens to the survivors afterwards — how do they get on with their lives after such unfathomable horror and trauma?

A love story

The novel is essentially a love story between Heiner, a Viennese man, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 as a Communist, and Lena, a translator from Germany, who is 10 years his junior.

They meet by accident when Heiner is called to give evidence as a witness at the Auschwitz trials, held in Frankfurt in 1964, in which former SS officials and guards were tried for war crimes.

Lena is working in the court, translating evidence from Polish into German. On the 52nd day of the hearings, Heiner collapses in the hallway of the courthouse, where Lena rescues him — she wipes his brow, helps him to a chair and gets him a glass of water — forging the beginning of a love affair that endures for the next 30-plus years.

The Auschwitz legacy

As the couple’s story unfolds we learn that Heiner’s experiences at Auschwitz will forever mark him.  As prisoner 63,387,  he worked as a typist in the prisoner’s infirmary typing death records for those internees who had died.

Several times a day the SS man brings us a list with names and numbers of the dead. We don’t know how these people died. We can choose from thirty different illnesses. According to my typewriter people die of heart failure, phlegmons, pneumonia, spotted fever and typhus, embolisms, influenza, circulatory collapse, stroke, cirrhosis of the liver, scarlet fever, diphtheria, whooping cough, and kidney failure. Under no circumstances is anyone tortured, beaten to death or shot at Auschwitz. No one starves, dies of thirst; no one is hanged, no one is gassed.

On a daily basis, Heiner witnessed great brutality and unspeakable acts of cruelty and inhumanity by the SS officers and guards, but he knew that he had to survive in order to be a witness. But life was cheap and at any point he could be the next to die:

That was the first lesson he’d learned: You can die. For looking too curious, too horrified, too bold, too submissive or not submissive enough. For walking. Too fast, too slow, too casually. You can die for saying your number wrong. Too softly, too loudly, too hesitantly, too slowly, or too fast. You can be killed for not knowing the words to a song. If a person wants to kill, any reason will do.

But after liberation there were new challenges to overcome— “He’d survived — but what was the point? The perpetrators were convicted and would serve their sentences without remorse, without understanding, without any shock over what they’d done” — and no one understood what he had gone through:

 At home people had looked at him mistrustfully: How come you’re still alive? We thought there was only one way to freedom at Auschwitz: through the chimney. Their eyes asked: What did you do? Were you a Nazi stooge? At whose cost did you survive? If only they had asked him directly. He found their secretive looks repugnant.

His first marriage, which is mentioned only in passing, falls apart when his wife and young child are unable to cope with Heiner’s ongoing suffering and his inability to escape from the shadow of Auschwitz that continues to loom over him.

By the time Lena meets him — almost 20 years after liberation — Heiner is still in the grip of that shadow. Their marriage works, not because Lena helps Heiner to overcome his pain — he can never overcome it — but because she accepts that it is part of his character, part of his being. As she tells Heiner’s friend, Tadek, who is also a Holocaust survivor, “it’s like living with a singer who can’t stop singing the song of his life”:

He sings it in the morning, he sings it at noon and in the afternoon, evening and night. It has many verses. You have to like the song or you’ll go crazy.

Marriage governed by trauma

This Place Holds No Fear offers a poignant, often moving but never sentimental, glimpse into a marriage that is governed by trauma. It’s never maudlin, however, but it distills in clear, eloquent prose (beautifully translated by Anne Posten), an unconditional love that knows no bounds.

It particularly comes into its own in the second half of the novel when the couple travel to Poland, now under Communist rule, to deliver relief supplies to other Holocaust survivors. Here, Lena listens into conversations that deeply move her, because in meeting Heiner’s comrades she comes to understand that they all share a deep need to tell their (disturbing) stories. Yes, they are psychologically damaged men, but they have managed to stay sane not by forgetting what happened to them but by remembering their unnatural pasts.

The novel is based on a true story — the author interviewed and spent time with Auschwitz survivors — so it feels incredibly authentic. It’s certainly powerful and compelling. And when I finished it, the first word that sprang to mind was not “depressing” or “traumatic” but quite simply this: “beautiful”.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Czechoslovakia, Fiction, historical fiction, holocaust, Laurent Binet, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage, war

‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet

HHHH

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 336 pages; 2013. Translated from the French by Sam Taylor.

Laurent Binet’s HHhH is a unique take on the historical novel: it not only blends fact with fiction, the narrative includes the author’s own thoughts on researching and writing the story. What results is an intriguing hybrid, one that constantly reminds us that we can’t always trust the portrayal of history to be accurate or “truthful”, because there will always be elements that are confusing, ambiguous or simply unknowable.

A deadly plot from World War Two

The book focuses on a particular real-life event: the attempted assassination of Nazi SS officer Reinhard Heydrich in Prague on 27 May 1942 by two British-trained parachutists, one Czech and one Slovak, in a plot dubbed Operation Anthropoid.

As well as exploring the parachutists’ exploits once they are behind enemy lines and all the events leading up to, and after, the planned assassination, it also  looks at Heydrich’s stellar rise up the Nazi ranks to become acting Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, where he violently suppressed Czech culture and helped plan the “Final Solution”.

In literary terms, Heydrich is a wonderful character — “It’s as if a Dr Frankenstein novelist had mixed up the greatest monsters of literature to create a new and terrifying creature” — whose horrifying exploits earned him various names, including “The Butcher of Prague”, “The Hangman of Europe” and “The Blond Beast”. In fact, he was regarded as the most dangerous man in the Reich and was seen as a natural successor to Hitler.

He was widely believed to be the brains behind his boss, Heinrich Himmler — and this is the inspiration behind the title HHhH, an acronym of “Himmlers Hirn heist Heydrich”, which is German for “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”.

How does a novelist stick to the facts?

But as Binet tells Heydrich’s story, he struggles to stick strictly to the facts: he wants to make things up, to add “colour” to situations, to fill in gaps, to create dialogue, to explain character’s motivations and desires:

I’m fighting a losing battle. I can’t tell the story the way it should be told. This whole hotchpotch of characters, events, dates, and the infinite branching of cause and effect — and these people, these real people who actually existed. I’m barely able to mention a tiny fragment of their lives, their actions, their thoughts. I keep banging my head against the wall of history. And I look up and see, growing all over it — ever higher and denser, like a creeping ivy — the unmappable pattern of causality.

He often shows his hand — for instance, when he says a German tank enters the city at 9am he adds that he doesn’t know if that’s true given that the “most advanced troops seem largely to have driven motorbikes with sidecars”.

In another example he describes Goring as being “squeezed into a blue uniform”:

I don’t know why. I just imagine it being blue. It’s true that in photos Goring often sports a pale blue uniform but I don’t know what he was wearing on that particular day. He might just as easily have been wearing white, for example.

A Marmite book?

The danger with this kind of narrative structure in which the author butts in and interrupts the story to show his thinking is that you either love it or hate it.

If you’ve never really thought about the factual accuracy of historical fiction then you will probably find Binet’s approach fascinating and illuminating.

Me? I found it wearing. I’m a journalist. I know how these things work. I know that it is not always possible to verify every single conceivable, often minor and unimportant, facts — for instance, the colour of people’s clothes worn on a certain date and the exact words spoken behind closed doors — and I believe that a certain journalistic licence is acceptable if it helps get to the “truth” of a story.

But this criticism is not to diminish Binet’s achievement. HHhH is a highly original and astonishing “faction” novel, fast-paced, easy to read and full of thrilling drama. It’s incredibly evocative of time and place — the descriptions of Prague are especially rich and vivid — and meticulous in its detail (I particularly liked all the books and movies that Binet references throughout, many of which I’d read or watched in the past).  All in all, I loved its exploration of loyalty, betrayal, heroism and revenge.

HHhh won the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, a highly regarded French literary prize for a first novel, and was shortlisted for various other literary prizes around the world, including the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award.

Austria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Hanna Krall, holocaust, literary fiction, Peirene Press, Poland, Publisher, Setting

‘Chasing the King of Hearts’ by Hanna Krall

Chasing-the-king-of-hearts

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…

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, holocaust, literary fiction, Merethe Lindstrøm, Norway, Other Press

‘Days in the History of Silence’ by Merethe Lindstrøm

Days_in_the_history_of_silence

Fiction – paperback; Other Press; 224 pages; 2013. Translated from the Norwegian by Anne Bruce.

A couple of wet and wild Fridays ago I managed to escape the office an hour early and treated myself to a little browse in Daunt Books on Cheapside. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but for some reason I was drawn to Merethe Lindstrøm’s Days in the History of Silence and kept picking it up.

I had never heard of the author, nor the book, but I decided I had to buy it. There was something about it which suited my mood and the mood of the weather — cold, damp, melancholic. As it turns out, it proved to be a rather morose but elegant and thought-provoking read, perfect for a rainy weekend.

A quiet life

The story is about a Norwegian couple, Eva and Simon, who are living quiet lives in retirement — he was a physician, she was a high school teacher. But this is no ordinary couple. They have spent their entire married life together keeping secrets from their children — three daughters, who are now grown up with families of their own.

The first is that Eva had a child out of wedlock before she met and married Simon —  she gave her son up for adoption when he was six months old and has never seen him since, although she has often thought about him and once tried to track him down (secretly, of course).

The second is that Simon is a Jew from Eastern Europe, whose family went into hiding when the Nazis came to power. He was the sole survivor of the Holocaust — everyone else he knew perished in the extermination camps — but he later discovered that he had a cousin living in Berlin, which revived traumatic memories and plunged him into a severe depression.

Now, in their later lives, Eva and Simon have another secret to keep: they have dismissed the home help they hired (under pressure from their daughters) for reasons they don’t wish to discuss.

Growing old

The story is narrated by Eva, so that we only ever hear her side of events, but it is clear she loves Simon very much and that she is worried about him — he has recently become incredibly reticent and is showing signs of dementia.

His silence came gradually over the course of a few months, half a year. He might say thanks for the meal or bye. He has become as formal as a hotel guest, seemingly as frosty as a random passenger you bump into on a bus. Only now and again do I see him standing gazing out the window or smiling at something he is reading or watching on television, and I think he is back. As though it really is a journey he has embarked upon. But if I ask what he is watching, what is amusing, he just looks at me uncomprehendingly. The physician, one of his junior colleagues, say he has quite simply become old. The solution, for of course there are solutions to situations like this, why should we consult a physician otherwise, is a centre for the elderly, a day care centre where Simon spends time twice a week.

Now the daughters are putting pressure on Eva to consider putting him in a home, something she tries to ignore for as long as possible. Meanwhile, she finds herself mourning the loss of Marija, the home help, whom she treated as a substitute daughter. All of this forces her to think about her life and her marriage, episodes of which are recalled flashback style in prose that is both elegant and incisive.

Failure to deal with the past

So, while the book is essentially about marriage and family — in particular, what it is to lose family members, whether by giving them up for adoption or having them die in the Holocaust — it’s also a heartfelt and moving treatise on growing old and what happens when we suppress memories or fail to talk about sensitive subjects for such a long time.

Admittedly, it isn’t a particularly cheerful read, but it’s an intimate portrait of an elderly woman grappling with her past and her future, trying to do the right thing for her own sake and the sake of her husband. I found it a highly focused and intelligent read, brimful of humanity, wisdom and psychological insight. It’s infused with a gentle melancholia and leaves one aching to be upfront and transparent with the ones you love.

Days in the History of Silence won the Norwegian Critics’ Prize for Literature in 2011 and the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize in 2012.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Faber and Faber, Fiction, holocaust, literary fiction, Poland, Publisher, Setting, Steve Sem-Sandberg

‘The Emperor of Lies’ by Steve Sem-Sandberg

Emperor-of-lies

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 664 pages; 2012. Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death.

Steve Sem-Sandberg’s The Emperor of Lies won the August Prize — the Swedish equivalent of the Booker Prize — in 2009 and was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2012.

It is a dense behemoth of a book, with nary a chink of light in its dark fictionalised account of the Holocaust, but I read it at a time when I was looking for something substantial to get my teeth into. At more than 650 tiny print-filled pages, it certainly fit the bill. It is by no means a light or easy read, but it is one that rewards the patient reader.

Based on a true story

The book is based on the factual story of Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski, a 63-year-old Jewish businessman, who was the leader of the Jewish ghetto in Łódź. The ghetto — the second largest in Poland — was established by the Nazis in February 1940. Its 200,000 inhabitants were forced to work gruelling hours  — and in impoverished conditions marked by constant hunger, cold and fear — to provide supplies for the German military.

Chaim, who was also known as “Eldest of the Jews” after the Nazis appointed him to the role, was a mysterious figure with murky morals: was he, as many believed, a Nazi pawn, content to do as the Germans wanted in order to save his own skin and fulfil his quest for power? Or was he acting in the misguided belief that if he turned the ghetto into a well-oiled machine for military production he would not only save the lives of those Jews who worked for him but convince the Third Reich that Jews were not the vermin they were thought to be. In other words, was he a sinner or a saint?

The book, which explores this question in exacting, sometimes overwhelming, always meticulous, detail, fictionalises Chaim’s life and the lives of those who lived among him, but it does not provide a definitive answer (although the title might hint at the author’s opinion). What it does is make the reader see the man in all his many facets — some of it good, much of it bad — and leaves you to come to your own conclusions.

Problematic but still powerful

The problem I have with a book of this nature is not knowing what is real and what is not. If it is based on fact and historical research — and the appendices suggest Sem-Sandberg has devoted considerable time in this pursuit — why not write a straight non-fiction book so it’s perfectly clear? Why fictionalise something and then write it in such a way — very dry, prosaic and “journalistic” — that it reads like authoritative non-fiction reportage?

The answer, I suspect, is that the author would find it difficult to bring in the view points of the vast array of characters at the heart of this novel, all of whom were based on real people. (The book is littered with eye witness accounts.) Indeed, there are so many characters that it’s hard to keep track of them (though the guide at the back is helpful), and because it is written from so many perspectives it’s difficult to identify with any one person. I often felt like I’d just got to “know” someone, and then the story switched to a different character and I would have to start afresh, as it were.

This might sound like I am being negative, but I have to admit that I found The Emperor of Lies a truly fascinating and absorbing read. It tends to plod along, but I appreciated the detail and the way in which Sem-Sandberg examines Chaim’s moral culpability. It’s crammed with information but is also very nuanced and moving, so that the weight of the emotion builds slowly and by the final page you feel absolutely shattered. When Chaim sacrifices the elderly and the children of the ghetto to save the working population, it comes as quite a shock. And when you know the fate of those that are disappearing — many were murdered in Auschwitz and Chelmo — when they do not, it is extremely distressing.

Although The Emperor of Lies is a problematic novel, it is also one of the most powerful I have ever read.

You can read more about the real life Chaim Rumkowski on wikipedia (though the articles seems almost as contentious as the person it’s about). And there’s a terrific review — or should I say hatchet job — on the Financial Times website. There’s a more positive take on it in The Independent.

Author, Book review, Esi Edugyan, Fiction, France, Germany, holocaust, literary fiction, Publisher, Serpent's Tail, Setting

‘Half Blood Blues’ by Esi Edugyan

Half-Blood-Blues

Fiction – Kindle edition; Serpent’s Tail; 256 pages; 2011.

A book about jazz musicians living in Berlin during the Second World War isn’t something that would normally pique my interest. But this book has been nominated for every award going this year — the Booker Prize, the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize — so I figured there must be something special about it. I was right.

The first thing that strikes you about this novel is the voice of its narrator, Sidney Griffiths, a black bass player from Baltimore who spent his formative years in Berlin during the 1930s and 40s. To give you a feel for how he talks, here’s how he describes the jazz band to which he once belonged:

Once upon a time we was the stuff. Played the greatest clubs of Europe, our five recordings as famous as anything. We had fans across the continent, played Austria and Switzerland and Sweden and Hungary and even Poland. Only reason we ain’t never gigged in France was cause Ernst, a proud son of a bitch, he held a war-based grudge. Lost it soon enough, when old Germany started falling apart. But before that our band was downright gold, all six of us: Hieronymus Falk on trumpet; Ernst ‘the Mouth’ von Haselberg on clarinet; Big Fritz Bayer on alto sax; Paul Butterstein on piano; and, finally, us, the rhythm boys – Chip Jones on drums and yours truly thumbing the upright. We was a kind of family, as messed-up and dysfunctional as any you could want.

When the story opens Sid is an old man. It’s 1992 and his fellow band member, Chip, is accompanying him to the German premiere of a film about Hieronymus Falk. Hiero, the youngest member of their band, was largely regarded as a musical protégé, but he died in Mauthausen Concentration Camp. The documentary explores events leading up to his arrest by the Nazis. It also accuses Sid of a great betrayal, something which takes him somewhat by surprise.

But all is not as it seems. Like the legend of Elvis, there are rumours that Hiero is still alive.

‘What really happened to Hieronymus Falk’ become something of a journalist sport. All sorts of nonsense started up.

When Chip reveals that he’s received recent correspondence from Hiero, he and Sid go on a heart-wrenching adventure to find him. During their trip — by bus through a rather grim pre-European Union Poland — Sid slowly comes to accept that his past has finally caught up with him but is struggling to know how to deal with it.

The narrative swings back and forth across time — from Berlin and Paris during the war, and Berlin and Poland 50 years later — but events are always seen from Sid’s point of view. It’s a fascinating account of one man’s experiences — his love affairs, his musical rivalries and fierce jealousies (especially of Hiero), his guilt and much-too-late atonement for one cruel act that he can never take back.

These temporal shifts allow us to see the ways in which Sid has grown and changed as a character. The young Sid is plagued by self-doubt and envy; the older Sid is comfortable in his skin until his conscience and regret get the better of him.

While the book is littered with jazz references, I tended not to view this as a “jazz novel” — I’m not knowledgeable enough to cast comment on its authenticity or otherwise — but I did enjoy the way Edugyan brings the music to life through her prose.

Hiero thrown out note after shimmering note, like sunshine sliding all over the surface of a lake, and [Louis] Armstrong was the water, all depth and thought, not one wasted note. Hiero, he just reaching out, seeking the shore; Armstrong stood there calling across to him. Their horns sound so naked, so blunt, you felt almost guilty listening to it, like you eavesdropping. After some minutes Chip stopped singing, left just the two golden ropes of sound to intertwine.

But for me, the heart of this novel is the way in which Edugyan shines a spotlight on a subject not much explored in modern fiction — that of black people living in Aryan Germany. Here’s how one character explains it:

‘Life for black people under the Third Reich,’ he said through his nose, ‘was extremely contradictory. This is because there were so many different types of black people, and their treatment depended on what group they belonged to. For instance, you had the children of the African diplomats who’d come to the country during its colonial period. You had African–American performers, the opera singer Marian Anderson and jazzmen like Charles Jones and Sidney Griffiths, who, like their counterparts in Paris – Josephine Baker, Arthur Briggs, Bill Coleman and the like – all came to Europe to get away from the overwhelming racism prevalent in the southern United States in that era. The Jim Crow laws, in effect from the late 1800s right into the 1950s, barred blacks from active participation in society. In the twenties Europe was still a place black entertainers could come to earn a good living. Especially in Germany, whose borders were kept open to foreigners due to the Versailles Treaty. Also, the loss of the First World War had brought about a whole new artistic movement. The market for jazz had grown tremendously, and there was a decent following.’

While Half Blood Blues is not a perfect novel, I can’t help but respect Edugyan’s accomplishment. She’s attempted a risky endeavour by giving herself some high aims. Not only does she write the entire book in a Creolized voice, she focuses on jazz musicians against the backdrop of the Third Reich. She then fleshes out a very strong cast of characters, throws in a page-turning plot — Is Hiero alive or not? Did Sid really betray him? — and uses a complex structure to tell her story.

Half Blood Blues has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize — and I’d like to think she might just win it. For other takes on this novel please see KevinfromCanada’s review and The Mookse and the Gripes’ review.