1001 books, 1001 Books to read before you die, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Nicole Krauss, Penguin, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40

‘The History of Love’ by Nicole Krauss

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 272 pages; 2005.

Sometimes you pull a book from your shelves not really knowing what to expect and before you know it you’ve read 100 pages and are so absorbed in the story you’ve forgotten all sense of time. This is what happened to me when I began Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love earlier this week.

It is one of those wonderful stories that celebrates survival, love and literature, and cleverly weaves in a literary mystery with a moving story about unrequited love and grief.

Told from two divergent view points — a young girl mourning the loss of her father and an elderly Jewish man mourning the loss of his lover and the son he never got to know — it’s a wise and tender book framed around an original and inventive structure.

A literary mystery

At the heart of The History of Love is a mystery around a book, also entitled The History of Love. The manuscript, written by Polish man Leo Gursky about the woman with whom he had fallen in love, was considered lost during the turmoil of the Second World War and the horrors of the Holocaust. But, unbeknownst to Leon, it was published in South America under another man’s name at a later date.

Now, more than 50 years later, a single and much-loved copy of the book is in New York, where it is being translated by a woman who named her first child after the lead character in its pages. Recently bereaved, the translator’s task is a pleasant distraction from thinking about the early death of her husband, but for her daughter, Alma, it offers a chance to play matchmaker — between her grieving mother and the mysterious benefactor, based in Venice, who is paying for the book to be translated chapter by chapter.

Intertwined with this narrative is the story of Leo, now an elderly man living a solitary existence in a New York apartment block. He spends his days trying not to be invisible — deliberately spilling coffee when he goes out, for instance, and taking a freelance job as a life model for an art class — all the while dreaming of his lost manuscript and wondering if he might have been able to make it as a writer if it hadn’t got lost in the first place.

It’s a rather convoluted, albeit clever, plot that expertly draws these two narrative threads together, along with a third storyline that explains how the manuscript was plagiarised and published under a rival’s name.

Distinct voices

The book’s strength lies in its distinctive narrative voices. Both the teenage girl Alma and the elderly Jewish Leo, who tell their stories in alternate chapters, are wonderfully realised with recognisably different personalities and ways of thinking. The supportive cast of family and friends is equally well-drawn. (Alma’s troubled younger brother Bird is a particular delight.)

Through Alma’s and Leo’s day-to-day struggles we learn so much about human persistence, curiosity and love. It’s heartbreaking in places, particularly when you realise the scale of Leo’s loss (and not just in terms of a manuscript he had poured his heart and soul into), but it’s also full of wise and tender moments, and lightened by self-deprecating humour that often had me chuckling throughout.

And the ending, which draws everything so neatly and cleverly together, is a deeply satisfying one.

This is my 7th book for #TBR40. I bought it second-hand more than 10 years ago and it has lingered on my shelves ever since, surviving dozens of book culls along the way.

‘The History of Love’ by Nicole Krauss, first published in 2005, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as a “sad and achingly beautiful book”.

Author, Book review, England, Faber and Faber, Hungary, memoir, Miranda Doyle, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Quercus, Sacha Batthyány, Setting, Sigrid Rausing, Sweden

3 memoirs by Sacha Batthyány, Miranda Doyle and Sigrid Rausing

Three memoirs

‘A Crime in the Family’ by Sacha Batthyány

Non-fiction – memoir; paperback; Quercus; 224 pages; 2018. Translated from the German by Anthea Bell.

A crime in the familyA Crime in the Family is a compelling memoir that looks at two of my favourite subjects: moral culpability and intergenerational guilt.

Written by Swiss journalist Sacha Batthyány in an engaging but forthright tone, it combines autobiography with family history (the Batthyány family is so distinguished it has its own Wikipedia page) and explores what it is like to discover that one of your ancestors has carried out a horrendous war crime that has remained secret for decades.

The book’s main focus is one particular night in the spring of 1945 when Sacha’s great aunt, Countess Margit Batthyány, threw an extravagant party for German aristocrats and Nazi SS officers in her ancestral home —  a castle — in the Hungarian village of Rechnitz. Part of the “entertainment” included the “sport” of shooting 180 Jewish workers dead and burying them in a mass grave.

Batthyány uses family diaries from the time to tell the story and marries this with accounts of his own therapy sessions and journalistic research. At times the book reads like a travelogue, as Batthyány, often accompanied by his father (with whom he has a troubled relationship), visits landmarks associated with his dark family history, including the gulags of Russia and the extermination camp at Auschwitz. He also travels to South America to meet the descendants of some of the Jews who were killed in the massacre.

This is a tragic and moving memoir about complicity, reconciliation and shining a light on the truth. Highly recommended.

‘A Book of Untruths’ by Miranda Doyle

Non-fiction – memoir; hardcover; Faber & Faber; 272 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

A Book of Untruths is an unusual but thought-provoking memoir that raises more questions than it answers.

Structured around a series of lies — 70 “untruths” in total — Doyle explores not only the complicated nature of her family (her parents had a troubled marriage and her father was a larger-than-life unpredictable character), but also the unreliability of memoir writing as a whole. How dependable are our memories? Where does fact become fiction? How does storytelling help us make sense of our own lives and the world we live in?

Doyle’s desperate need to understand the complicated nature of her parent’s marriage and her own messy, tangled upbringing (including her complex relationship with her three siblings), lends this memoir a ring of authenticity. Written in exquisite but punchy prose, A Book of Untruths isn’t a misery memoir, but it is fuelled by a deep anger and is undercut with enough self-deprecating humour to make it an enjoyable if somewhat curious read.

‘Mayhem: A Memoir’ by Sigrid Rausing

Non-fiction – memoir; paperback; Penguin; 224 pages; 2018. 

Many people may know Sigrid Rausing as the editor of Granta magazine and the publisher of Granta Books, but she is from a wealthy Swedish family which made its fortune from food packaging (her grandfather co-founded Tetra Pak). Curiously, this memoir isn’t about Rausing’s life; instead it is about her sister-in-law’s death.

Eva Rausing, one of the wealthiest women in the UK, died of a drug overdose aged 48  in the summer of 2012. Her body was found in the London mansion she shared with her husband, Hans (Sigrid’s brother), under a pile of clothes in a barricaded bedroom. Hans was charged with preventing the lawful and decent burial of his wife and later sentenced to 10 months in jail.

Mayhem: A Memoir looks at the outfall of this death on the Rausing family, but much of its focus is on the years preceding the tragedy, for both Hans and Eva were drug addicts (they met in rehab) and were so entrapped by their respective addictions they had given Sigrid and her husband Eric custody of their four children.

Heartfelt, searing and deeply reflective (but occasionally tinged with self-pity), the book emphasises the collateral damage that drug addiction wreaks on entire families and shows that being born into immense wealth offers no protection against tragedy.

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, Faber and Faber, Marceline Loridan-Ivens, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher

‘But You Did Not Come Back’ by Marceline Loridan-Ivens

But you did not come backNon-fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 112 pages; 2016. Translated from the French by Sandra Smith.

With International Holocaust Remembrance Day just around the corner (on January 27), it seems fitting to review Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ But You Did Not Come Back, which I read at the tail end of last year.

This short, searing memoir, written as a letter from a daughter to her late father, is a powerful and moving read. It’s brevity means it can be easily read in a sitting, but it’s the kind of heart-rending, exquisitely composed story that stays with the reader long after you have reached the final page.

A haunting memoir

“I was quite a cheerful person, you know, in spite of what happened to us,” Marceline begins, as she pours out her heart to the man she would never know as an adult.

In 1944, when Marceline was 15 and her father was in his early 40s, the pair were arrested in occupied France and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau where they were forcibly separated.

Afterwards, history linked those two places with a simple hyphen. Auschwitz-Birkenau. Some people just say Auschwitz, the largest death camp of the Third Reich. Time obliterates what separates us. It distorts everything. Auschwitz was built behind a little town; Birkenau was in the countryside. It was only when you went out through the large gate with your work detail that you could catch a glimpse of the other camp. The men from Auschwitz looked toward us and thought: That’s where our wives, our sisters, our daughters died; and that’s where we’ll end up, in the gas chambers. And I, I looked towards you and wondered, Is it a camp or a town? Has he gone to the gas chamber? Is he still alive? Between us stood fields, prison blocks, watchtowers, barbed wire, crematoriums, and above all else, the unbearable uncertainty of what was happening to us all. It was if we were separated by thousands of kilometres. The books say it was barely three.

Marceline’s story hinges on a single memory: of receiving a note from her father, smuggled to her in Birkenau from Auschwitz, which begins: “This is a message from your father.” It was their last ever communication.

Life after liberation

As well as detailing the horrors of the camp, But You Did Not Come Back is one of those rare Holocaust testimonies which looks at difficulties associated with repatriation and the aftermath of trauma. Marceline explains how hard it was to readjust to normal life when she returned home, how her little brother did not recognise her, how her mother asked her intrusive questions about whether she had been raped — “Are you still a virgin?” — and how she longed to sleep on the floor because “I couldn’t stand the comfort of a bed any more” but wasn’t  allowed.

In passing, she mentions two suicide attempts and then explains the irony of this: “[…] in the camp, I did everything I could to stay alive. Never allowed myself to believe that death would mean peace.”

Why was I incapable of living once I’d returned to the world? It was like a blinding light after months in the darkness. It was too intense, people wanted everything to seem like a fresh start, they wanted to tear my memories from me; they thought they were being rational, in harmony with passing time, the wheel that turns, but they were mad, and not just the Jews — everyone! The war was over, but it was eating all of us up inside.

Yet for all the sadness and the aching, haunting quality of Marceline’s story, it ends on a hopeful note: that writing to her father has helped “release what is clasped tightly to my heart”, that surviving the camp was worth it in the end.

If you liked this, you might also like:

This Place Holds No Fear by Monika Held: an extraordinarily beautiful novel about life (and marriage) after the death camps.

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


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


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


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


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.