Author, Book review, Fiction, Fred Uhlman, Germany, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage Digital

‘Reunion’ by Fred Uhlman

Reunion

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 98 pages; 2012.  

Fred Uhlman’s classic novella Reunion — first published in 1971 — is a universal story about the friendship between two teenage school boys. But this is no average story, no average friendship, for it is set in Germany in the early 1930s, just as Nazism is on the rise.

Teenage friendship

The story is narrated by middle-class Hans Schwarz, the son of a Jewish doctor and grandson of a rabbi, looking back on a special friendship he shared with the aristocratic Konradin von Hohenfel, whose parents sided with Hitler, some 25 years after they lost contact with one another.

He came into my life in February 1932 and never left it again. […] I can remember the day and the hour when I first set eyes on this boy who was to be the source of my greatest happiness and of my greatest despair.

The book charts the rise and fall of their friendship over the course of a year. Right from the start Hans, who is friendless and lonely at school, is enamoured by Konradin’s arrival in their classroom for the first time:

We stared at him as if we had seen a ghost. What struck me and probably all of us more than anything else, more than his self-assured bearing, his aristocratic air and slight, faintly supercilious smile, was his elegance. We were all, so far as our style of dress was concerned, a dreary lot. […] But with this boy it was different. He wore long trousers, beautifully cut and creased, obviously not off the peg like ours. His suit looked expensive: it was light grey with a herringbone pattern and almost certainly “Guaranteed English”. He wore a pale blue shirt and a dark blue tie with small white polka-dots; in contrast our neckwear was dirty, greasy and rope-like. Even though we regarded any attempt at elegance as “sissy”, we couldn’t help looking enviously at this picture of ease and distinction.

It takes a concerted effort to “woo” Konradin by the shy Hans, but eventually they bond over a shared love of coin collecting. Konradin is welcomed into the Schwarz family home after school on a regular basis, but the favour takes a long time to be returned — and when it is, it doesn’t take Hans long to realise that he is only ever invited over when Konradin’s parents are away.

Tensions in the friendship become heightened — almost in tandem with the rise of anti-Semitism in German society — and things come to a head just as Hitler is about to be appointed Chancellor. I won’t say any more, but the book has a spine-tingling — and quite unexpected — final sentence that gives the story extra resonance and poignancy.

A portrait of an ideal friendship

Reunion is a beautiful depiction of an “ideal friendship” between two 16-year-old boys from different backgrounds. Though we largely experience it from Hans’ point of view, it perfectly captures the all-pervasive need to have that one special person in our lives — with whom we can share our interests, our troubles, our desires — when we are teens. It also highlights how loyalty can be tested, in this case to the extreme, by circumstances beyond our control.

I loved the mood of the book — it’s nostalgic and wistful without being sentimental — and it’s written in a perfectly matter-of-fact way but is done so eloquently the sentences feel as if they’ve been spun from silk. It’s a quick read, too, but it’s the kind of story that stays with you, not least because it shows how friendships can endure beyond the worst of human catastrophe.

My edition includes a short introduction written by French novelist Jean d’Ormesson in 1997, but the novella has also been championed by Arthur Koestler, who described it as a “minor masterpiece”, and Rachel Seiffert. It came to my attention via Armen, a member of my book group, who recommended it to me late last year.

Finally, I should point out that Uhlman wrote Reunion in English, not German. He emigrated to the UK in 1936 after stints in France and Spain. You can read more about his eventful life on his Wikipedia page.

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, Brazil, Corsair, crime/thriller, Fiction, Ira Levin, Publisher, Setting, South America

‘The Boys from Brazil’ by Ira Levin

Boys-from-Brazil

Fiction – Kindle edition; Corsair; 288 pages; 2011.

Ira Levin’s  The Boys from Brazil is a classic thriller first published in 1976. Some of you may better know it as a film, starring Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier, which was nominated for three Academy Awards in 1978. I have not seen the film, and I didn’t really know anything of the book’s plot, other than it was about Nazis. I picked it up for 99 pence earlier this year and thought I would save it for a time when I was looking for something fast-paced and easy to read — such as a long-haul flight.

Mysterious murder plot hatched by fugitive Nazis

The story, which opens in September 1974, is based around a mysterious plot hatched by a group of Nazi war criminals now hiding out in South America. The head Nazi is none other than Dr Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death”, who carried out horrible experiments on inmates at Auschwitz during the Second World War. In a secret meeting, held in a Japanese restaurant in Sao Paulo, Brazil, he tells the gathering:

‘It’s the most important operation the Organization has ever undertaken, and “important” is a thousand times too weak a word to describe it. The hope and the destiny of the Aryan race lie in the balance. No exaggeration here, my friends; literal truth: the destiny of the Aryan folk – to hold sway over the Slays and the Semites, the Black and the Yellow – will be fulfilled if the operation succeeds, will not be fulfilled if the operation fails. So “important” isn’t a strong enough word, is it? “Holy”, maybe? Yes, that’s closer. It’s a holy operation you’re taking part in.’

The operation involves murdering civil servants living around the world, on or around their 65th birthdays.

‘Ninety-four men have to die on or near certain dates in the next two and a half years,’ he said, reading. ‘Sixteen of them are in West Germany, fourteen in Sweden, thirteen in England, twelve in the United States, ten in Norway, nine in Austria, eight in Holland and six each in Denmark and Canada. Total, ninety-four. The first is to die on or near October sixteenth; the last, on or near the twenty-third of April, 1977.’

The meeting is secretly taped by a young American journalist, who tips off the Vienna-based “Nazi hunter” Yakov Liebermann. While the pair are on the telephone discussing the matter, the journalist is killed, setting into motion a chain of events which span the globe.

To say much more is impossible without giving away crucial plot spoilers. But what I can say is this: part of the fun in reading this book is trying to figure out why these seemingly unimportant men are to be killed. Are they connected to the Nazi Party in some way? Or have they wronged Mengele in the past? Will Liebermann figure it out before he, too, is murdered by these assassins?

Genre-bending novel

The Boys from Brazil isn’t your average thriller. It has elements of science fiction in it and because it is based on real characters — including Simon Wiesenthal, whom Yakov Liebermann is supposed to represent —  it also feels rooted in “truth”. And the reason for the murder plot, when it is revealed, is chilling to the core.

However, some elements of the story, such as genetic engineering, are slightly outdated now, but I imagine that in the mid-1970s this book must have felt not only fresh and exciting but within the realm of possibility — so many of those Nazi’s were on the run and Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor, had devoted his life to tracking them down and bringing them to justice.

I should also point out that Levin’s prose style is overly simplistic to the point of being dull. That’s not to say he isn’t a cracking storyteller — he is — but to keep the momentum and suspense going in this fast-paced plot, Levin doesn’t worry too much about descriptions or scene setting; he just wants to get to the point. Some people will appreciate this style, others will hate it. I didn’t mind it, although his tendency to hyphenate words — wedding-ringed, wet-darkened shoulders and so on — grated on me after awhile.

All in all, I enjoyed this book — it kept me thoroughly entertained on a flight between Rio de Janeiro and Paris — and you can’t ask much more than that.