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, Dav Vyleta, Doubleday Canada, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Crooked Maid’ by Dan Vyleta

Crooked-maid

Fiction – hardcover; Doubleday Canada; 427 pages; 2013.

Dan Vyleta’s The Crooked Maid has been short-listed for this year’s Giller Prize. It is one of those novels that has the feel of a timeless classic; it reads as though it could have been written at any point in the past 60 years.

Ambitious in scope, it recreates Vienna in 1948, peoples it with a sizable collection of well-drawn characters, connects them all in a myriad of brilliant and unexpected ways, then throws in a murder mystery, a missing person case, a courtroom trial, several love affairs and a scandal or two. I loved its breadth and its scope, and found myself swept up by a dark drama that covers everything from love and loyalty to betrayal and corruption.

A vast cast of characters

The book opens with a train journey. Anna Beer is returning to war-torn Vienna from Paris for the first time in nine years. She’s hoping to rendezvous with her estranged husband, a psychiatrist, who has spent most of the war as an inmate in a Russian concentration camp. The couple’s marriage crumbled after Anna caught her husband with another man, but she is now prepared to forgive him, so that they can start their lives afresh.

Travelling in the same carriage is Robert Seidel, an 18-year-old boy, who has just finished his schooling in Switzerland. He has been summoned home to Vienna, where his step-father, a wealthy industrialist (rumoured to have collaborated with the Nazis), now lies in a hospital bed on the brink of death. He supposedly “fell” out of an upper storey window, but Robert’s older step-brother, Wolfgang, has been charged with his murder.

It is around these two characters — Anna and Robert — that the story largely revolves, but there are many other characters who enter the frey and add to the multi-layered, interwoven narrative that Vyleta has so expertly crafted.

The “evil” hunchback

Chief among these is Eva, the “crooked maid” of the title, who works for the Seidel family and has a distinctive hunchback resulting from an injury caused to her as a child. She was raised in an orphanage and has spent most of her life looking after herself. As a consequence she is rather feisty and outspoken. She also likes to play up to her wicked reputation — “You’re evil,” Robert tells her at one point. “I’m a hunchback. What did you expect?” she retorts.

And then there is Karel Neumann, a large Czech man, who claims to have been a POW with Anna’s husband, Anton Beer. Anton, however, can’t vouch for him, because he never returns to Vienna — instead Anna must go to the police to report him missing.

There are more characters, all bumping and rubbing up against one another, but to the author’s credit, the reader never loses track of who is who despite the seemingly never-ending cast. Oh, and how could I forget — the city of Vienna — grey, oppressive, war-torn — is a character, too:

The northern part of the inner city had not been subject to direct attack and had only been hit by strays. Most of the rubble had been cleared. There were buildings, upper storeys, that were missing. Her eyes stared up at gaps into which her mind would paint a row of windows; a stuccoed gable perched atop a brass-shod door. Here and there torn walls had been patched: dull, artless plaster clinging like a canker to ornate facades. Men and women walked the streets, hungry, threadbare, dressed in shabby clothes; blind to the pockmarked beauty of a capital whose empire had been mislaid.

Complicated plot

While I couldn’t possibly outline the rather complicated plot in just a paragraph or two, let’s just say it embraces everything from patricide to suicide, vagrancy to prostitution, and piles incident upon incident so that there’s never a dull moment and you’re never sure what’s going to happen next.

In his Afterword, Vyleta says the book’s structure — and its reliance on coincidence — owes much to Charles Dickens, particularly “of his ability to connect characters high and low through crime, family scandal, and the brittle threads of chance”. Which is pretty much the perfect description of what The Crooked Maid achieves so beautifully. I rather suspect the entire narrative was expertly planned in advance — much like a grand chess master plots his moves — because for such an ambitious, wide-ranging story, Vyleta ties up all the loose ends in a pleasing, satisfying way. Nothing feels forced or rushed.

And while it’s not an easy read — it’s too dense, too claustrophobic, too dry and oppressive for that — it’s an absorbing one, because it throws you into a completely all-encompassing world and lets you walk its streets, climb its staircases, breath its air and forget about your own life for a bit. It’s an impressive achievement.

Austria, Author, Book review, Edmund De Waal, France, History, Japan, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance’ by Edmund De Waal

Hare-with-amber-eyes

Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage; 368 pages; 2011.

Edmund De Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes won the 2010 Costa Biography Award. And yet this book is not a biography as such. It’s a mix of memoir and history, with a little bit of art and some travel thrown in for good measure.

The hare of the title is carved out of ivory and is one of 264 netsuke that Edmund De Waal inherited from his Uncle Iggie. Netsuke are miniature sculptures from Japan, highly collectible and presumably worth a lot of money. De Waal, who is a potter by trade, is obviously enamoured of them and is keen to learn how these intriguing items came to pass. He also wants to know how they entered his family: where did his Uncle Iggie get them from?

While the book appears to centre on this special collection of netsuke — their origin, the ways in which they have been passed through three generations of De Waal’s family — their appearance in the text is fleeting. This is more a story about De Waal’s complicated, but intriguing, family tree — he is the direct descendant of the Ephrussi family, a Jewish banking and oil dynasty that originated in Odessa, Ukraine, rose to power in Paris and Vienna, but then crumbled when the Nazis seized their assets, including the family’s famous bank, during the Second World War.

De Waal chooses to structure his book by starting near the top of his family tree, rather than working backwards as one might expect (or perhaps I’ve just watched way too many episodes of Who Do You Think You Are?) This is a gamble, because what happens if this person is the most interesting relative of the lot? Everyone else will pale by comparison and the narrative tension will be lost.

Arguably, Charles Ephrussi, whom De Waal introduces us to in Part One, is the most interesting relative he has in his tree. Paris-based Charles (1849-1905) is an art historian, critic and collector, who is immersed in the Impressionist era. He buys work from the likes of Manet, Pisarro and Degas and is depicted in Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. If that’s not enough, he is also the inspiration for Charles Swann in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. He even starts his own periodical and becomes editor several years later.

It is Charles who buys the netsuke from Japan at a time when Japanese art was coming into fashion. And it is Charles who passes them onto a Vienna-based cousin, as a wedding present, setting them on a journey that is to stretch for more than 100 years.

I have to admit that there were times when I found this book slightly tedious — and dull. De Waal has a tendency to be self-indulgent, to explore the things that interest him rather than thinking about his reader, but his prose style is elegant and effortless.

Every now and then, however, there are little bursts of excitement — and shock — that lift the text out of the doldrums and give the narrative some extra impetus. I was particularly rivetted by the section in which the Nazis seized the Ephrussi family’s palace, depriving them of their property and belongings. For a family so wealthy and privileged it must have seemed an astonishingly rude — and frightening — shock from which they never fully recovered.

But, overall, I had reservations about this book, perhaps because I’m not much of a “thing” person — material objects and accumulation of wealth don’t interest me in the slightest. The Hare with the Amber Eyes resonated more with me as a history of anti-semitism in the 20th century rather than a “biography” of netsuke. It’s an interesting book, but it’s also a strange one, too.

Austria, Author, Book review, Granta, John Leake, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime, USA

‘The Vienna Woods Killer: A Writer’s Double Life’ by John Leake

ViennaWoods

Non-fiction – hardcover; Granta Books; 347 pages; 2007.

Truth is stranger than fiction, and no more so than in the case of Jack Unterweger, a convicted murderer hailed as Austria’s greatest example of criminal rehabilitation. While serving a life sentence for the brutal murder of 18-year-old Margaret Schäfer in 1976, Jack developed a flair for writing poetry, fiction and non-fiction. His work was so well received he became the darling of the literary elite who campaigned, successfully, for his early release in 1990.

But despite his apparent reform, everything was not quite as it seemed. When four prostitutes disappeared from Vienna’s red light district in the first year of Jack’s release he was one of the first to write about the crimes. He ingratiated himself with the local police chief and interviewed many of the city’s street workers for articles that were published in the press.

Capitalising on new found celebrity, Jack then went to California to research a magazine article about crime in LA. He accompanied  police on their patrols of the city’s red light districts. During the time of his visit three prostitutes were brutally murdered. Their deaths, in which they had been beaten, tied up and strangled, bore striking resemblances to the deaths of the Viennese prostitutes.

This book by American journalist John Leake traces Jack’s life and the painstaking lengths that police on two continents undertook to charge him with the murder of 11 women. It is an absolutely fascinating story about one man’s ability to hoodwink society into thinking he had put his criminal past behind him while living a secret life as a serial killer. What emerges is a portrait of a sociopath who was so careful and clever at carrying out these despicable crimes that it took police many years of hard work to catch him.

The Vienna Woods Killer: A Writer’s Double Life is creepy and spine-chilling in places, with so many twists and turns in the narrative that it seems almost too unreal, too fantastical to be true, but Leake never resorts to sensationalism or cheap literary tricks. The tone of this thoroughly researched book (Leake had privileged access to Jack’s diaries and interviewed all the major players) is restrained but never dull. It’s a well plotted, cleverly crafted investigative piece of non-fiction that had me enthralled from the first page to the satisfying — and wholly unexpected — conclusion on the last.