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.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Germany, Hans Fallada, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting

‘Alone in Berlin’ by Hans Fallada

AloneinBerlin

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 608 pages; 2010. Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann.

Hans Fallada, the pen name of Rudolph Wilhelm Adolf Ditzen (1893-1947), reportedly wrote Alone in Berlin in just 24 days. And it shows.

This is a big, rambling book, with a loose narrative structure, and a cast of what seems like a million characters. It’s set in Berlin during the Second World War and focuses on one man’s efforts to resist the Nazis in the best way he knows how: by dropping postcards with anti-Hitler messages scrawled upon them in public buildings across the city. If he is caught, there is no doubt that Otto Quangel, an ordinary German, will be executed by the regime.

This sounds like a terrific premise for a book — and it is. I can honestly say that the first 200 or so pages are genuinely gripping, as Fallada introduces us to the characters, provides accounts of their troubled and occasionally trivial lives under the Third Reich, and shows how Otto, once a supporter of the Nazi regime, changes his mind when his only son is killed in the war. When together with his wife, Anna, he begins dropping anti-fascist postcards as an act of quiet rebellion you can’t help but admire him for it.

But the momentum of this novel, which is divided into four chunks, is lost in the big baggy structure of it. There are countless characters, many of whom simply drop out of the storyline without explanation. Often the Quango’s tale of resistance becomes subsidiary to other tangential threads, some of which are interesting stories in themselves — for instance, Hetty Haberles decision to shelter the weasel Enno Kluge from the Gestapo on the basis that they prosecuted her husband — but end up turning what should be the main narrative into mere background noise.

However, the book does throw up some important issues about politics, morality, truth, justice and humanity, which seem particularly prescient given the book was written in 1947 without the benefit of looking at the Nazi regime through decades of moral reflection and historical analysis. If there is any message to be taken from the story it is this, best summed up by one of the characters, Dr Reichhardt, who reassures Otto that his efforts of resistance were not useless:

“Well, it will have helped us to feel that we behaved decently till the end. […] Of course, Quangel, it would have been a hundred times better if we’d had someone who could have told us, such and such is what you have to do; our plan is this and this. But if there had been such a man in Germany, then Hitler would never have come to power in 1933. As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn’t mean that we ARE alone, or that our deaths will be in vain. Nothing in this world is done in vain, and since we are fighting for justice against brutality, we are bound to prevail in the end.”

As much as I wanted to love this book, particularly it’s moral message (I read it very soon after A Woman in Berlin), I couldn’t overlook its woolly structure and its meandering narrative. Apparently the story is based on a real life case in which a poorly educated working-class couple conducted a three-year propaganda campaign during the Nazi regime. This is documented at the rear of the novel and, in many ways, was more interesting to read than Fallada’s fictionalised account.

Sadly, Fallada, who spent much of his adult life in an out of psychiatric care, did not live to see the publication of this book. It was translated into English for the first time in 2009, where it was published in the USA as Every Man Dies Alone.

Austria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harry Mulisch, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Siegfried’ by Harry Mulisch

Siefried 

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 180 pages; 2004. Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent.

An elderly and celebrated Dutch author, Rudolph Herter, goes on a literary tour to Austria, taking his partner, Maria, with him. During a television interview promoting his latest novel, The Invention of Love, he offhandedly mentions that despite all the books and studies about Hitler humankind is no closer to understanding the Fuhrer and why he did what he did. “All those so-called explanations have simply made him more invisible,” says Herter. “Perhaps fiction is the net that he can be caught in.”

Later at a book signing, an elderly couple who survived the war, approach Herter with a story of their own to tell. Herter agrees to hear their tale, thinking that he may be able to use it as the basis for his next novel, which he has already decided should be about Hitler.

Over the course of an afternoon in their room at an old people’s home, the couple, Ullrich and Julia Falk, break the oath they once swore to Hitler and share their terrible secret with a gob-smacked Herter. Their story is so utterly astonishing that Herter soon realises that even the best fiction writers can never properly compete with the truth…

Sounds fascinating, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, if I say any more about the story it will spoil the plot. But let’s just say that it didn’t turn out to be the dramatic, page-turning tale I had expected.

Sure, Siegfried is a strange and beguiling novel, which deals with a lot of big themes. At its most basic level it pits fiction against fact and plays with the idea that truth is stranger than fiction. But it also attempts to explain the role of literature in helping us to comprehend the evils of the world around us. As a consequence the story gets bogged down in philosophy and navel gazing. Which is a shame, because there is a great story here dying to get out.

For me, personally, I would have loved this book to be more traditionally structured: to have a straightforward narrative that tells the Falk’s shocking tale from their viewpoint. (In fact, I would have taken Herter out of the story altogether. And yes, I realise this would mean the book would be totally different to the book that Harry Mulisch has created here. I rest my case.)

Instead, what we get is three not-very-seamless stories in one: Herter’s, the Falks’ and Eva Braun’s.

The pacing is not straightforward either, with the climax happening about half-way through, leaving the story that follows slightly weaker for it.

Still, if you like big, weighty themes, don’t mind the author philosophising and are fascinated by the love affair between Hitler and Eva Braun you might just find this novel more riveting than I did.

Author, Book review, essays, Germany, Gitta Sereny, History, memoir, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The German Trauma — Experiences and Reflections 1938-2001’ by Gitta Sereny

GermanTrauma  

Non-Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 382 pages; 2001.

Gitta Sereny is probably the best investigative journalist writing today and certainly one of the most insightful experts on the Third Reich. The German Trauma is a collection of her writings during her long career looking at World War II and its aftermath, particularly on the German people.

She has prefaced many of the chapters with her thoughts and recollections of writing the original piece, helping to put the stories into context and giving the readers a brief glimpse of her life as a journalist. From Albert Speer, Hitler’s right hand man and architect, to Franz Stangl, death camp commandant, Sereny often goes to extraordinary lengths to gain access to her subjects.

Her research is impeccable. In her quest for truth, Sereny treats her subjects with compassion and sincerity. She is the voice of reason in a world which is normally quick to judge and condemn.

While not Sereny’s best piece of work, its importance cannot be underestimated revealing, as it does, the tragic legacy of Hitler’s regime.