Archive for the ‘review’ Category

imageTranslated from Dutch by Sam Garrett

My second read for #dutchlitautumn is the third novel published in English by Herman Koch, which I approached with trepidation still feeling sleazy after reading Summer House with Swimming Pool.  A make or break read if you will.  Would this reader/author relationship survive?

Koch specialises in unsavoury characters, and he doesn’t take long to hit his stride here.   The opening section is a monologue addressed to Mr M by Herman, a man with a grudge stemming from the appropriation of his adolescent self in one of Mr M’s novels. Herman is to all intents and purposes a stalker.  I have plans for you, Mr M, he says with menace.

Mr M’s novel, Payback, was based on a case in which a teacher disappeared without trace.  Jan Landzaat, married with two children, had been romantically involved with his pupil, Laura.  He struggled emotionally when she traded him in for the rather ugly and gangly, Hermann, and wouldn’t let go.  After following Laura and Herman to a remote hideout,  Landzaat disappeared without trace.  While no case was brought against Laura and Herman for lack of evidence, in Mr M’s novel Laura and Herman are guilty of murder.  It was a high profile case, and once can only imagine the resulting impact of the novel on the lives of the two teenagers.

Koch’s novel examines the events leading up to the teacher’s disappearance from the viewpoints of the main characters, and nobody comes out well:  Laura, the prettiest girl in the class, and arch manipulator; Landzaat, the teacher with form, and Herman, who owns a video camera, which he uses as a candid camera, filming people during moments of high provocation.  This is a foretaste of the stalker he is to become, as well as a delicious irony.  The  younger Herman is just as intrusive in other people’s lives as Mr M will be in his own. Is the fact that Koch gives Herman his own name a commentary on an author’s keen powers of observation? At what point does such observation become intrusive?

This is just the tip of the metafictional iceberg at the heart of Dear Mr M, which is as much an analysis and satire of the writing life as it is a mystery.  At one point Mr M is interviewed about his objectives and decision making processes. In those pages, explanations are given for the necessary simplifications and omissions in Payback which in turn clarifies the occasional bagginess of Koch’s long but clever novel.  If you look closely, this interview also hints at the solution of what really happened to Mr Landzaat.

The tone is sly and snidey throughout.  Those expecting the shock (as in horrifying) value of Koch’s previous offerings  may be disappointed, although there is a final twist which may shock some. I had seen it coming – not that it matters. It’s a satisfying ending in which loose ends are tied … apart from one.  Just what did Stella do?  The fact that both Mr M and Koch deliberately do not tell niggles the hell out of me …..  I shall ask Koch about that, if I catch sight of him at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Despite that Koch and I are once more friends and I look forward to reading more.  I notice that there is a fourth Koch novel in existence, Odessa Star.  I hope that Sam Garrett is working on the English translation as I type.

Read Full Post »

“Hell reigns”‘ he (Joseph Roth) writes to (Stefan) Zweig.  He also says there can be no compromises with the enemy.  Anyone who continues to have business with Germany,  anyone who so much as maintains a connection to Germany, is a monster.


They resent Thomas Mann for taking so long to make himself one of the exiles, for trying not to wreck things with the regime in Germany, for not wanting to lose the German market.

(Extracts from SUMMER BEFORE THE DARK, Volker Weidermann)

Earlier this year I read Volker Weidermann’s retelling of the summer of 1936, when the exiled literati of Nazi Germany (Zweig, Roth, Keun etc.) congregated in Ostend to console and encourage each other.  I haven’t stopped thinking of it since and a fascination with the 1930’s is developing. Reading the views of the exiles about Thomas Mann quoted above, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he was colluding with the Nazi state for the sake of his book sales.


Translated by Jeannette K Ringold

“Fair criticism or not? I have been wondering, and so I decided to kick off my #dutchlitautumn with Britta Böhler’s retelling of a pivotal three days in 1936 during which Thomas Mann deliberated whether to publish an open letter denouncing the Nazi regime.

Böhler’s fictionalisation cleverly writes into a historical gap.  While Mann wrote copious diaries, there is very little covering these particular three days.  As Mann’s deliberations are not on record,  Böhler can set out his thoughts and concerns without without fear of contradiction.  I have no doubts that these are based in the realities of Mann’s mindset at that particular time: not just those of the public persona, but of the family man and the private individual.  I separate those two facets deliberately, because there were secrets that Mann kept from his wife that were written in diaries hidden in his beloved Munich home, and that had been confiscated by the Nazis.  His fear of the Nazis discovering these and the resulting damage to his reputation is very palpable.

The timeframe of the novel is extended backwards in time through Mann’s thoughts which cover his marriage to a rich Jewish heiress, the raising of his children and his early criticism of the Nazi regime.  His exile in Switzerland from 1933 was in some ways self-imposed.  Warned by friends not to return, as arrest was imminent, he took their advice, and brought his half-Jewish children out of Germany before the Nazis got hold of them.  But the Nazis wouldn’t leave him in peace. Fined for his abandonment (!), his property confiscated, they continued to persecute him from afar. And yet, as he was not Jewish, his books were not banned.  A full denunciation of the regime would result in his books being burned with unfavourable attention being directed to his Jewish publisher.  Would it also constitute abandonment of his loyal German readers?   How would he feed his family when his Nobel prize money (which he had judiciously banked abroad) ran out?

Böhler succeeds in putting Mann in the moment, on the cusp of a momentous decision, which would result in the permanent loss of not just his income and his home, but his homeland.  The result is a human portrait of a man deliberating the pros and the cons until the deciding factor tips the balance; it is a picture enabling a more reasoned and charitable assessment than that of the exiles in Ostend.

Read Full Post »

WARNING: This is a long post about the best literary event I’ll attend this year, and three cracking books that I read for it.  There is much I wish to say.

What makes or breaks a literary festival event for the audience?  The chair, of course.  Not the one you’re sitting on, but the person in charge of the author(s). I’ve seen events fail because of a) the chair being too awestruck to converse rationally, b) the chair being determined to prove their intellectual superiority,  c) the chair not being able to control the length of the author readings, and d) multiple other pitfalls that can happen along the way.  c) is a particular bugbear of mine so my heart sank when Craig Sisterton asked the audience whether they wanted the three authors at this event to read from their work and the audience, by majority vote, answered yes.  However, and all credit to the three authors concerned, their readings were kept to between 3-5 minutes each.  Enough to hook the audience into the work (and sell a few copies afterwards) and not too much to bore folk like me who inwardly scream I can read the book for myself, thanks! (N.B if a reading is too long, I never read the book.)

Before I reveal the authors in question, a few more words about Craig Sisterton’s chairing.  One word suffices really.  Masterful.  The focus of the event was writing in exile. So two Scottish and one English author discussing the foreign settings of their novels and the reasons why they chose those settings.  There was a lot of ground to cover, but Sisterton ensured that it was.  TIme was allocated fairly between the three, with natural, and often witty linkages segueing from one author to the next. Not a single note in sight. (I appreciate just how much preparation or natural talent that takes.) Hats off, Mr Sisterton, take a well deserved bow.  My applause at the end of the event was as much for you as for the authors.

Time though for me to reveal the three authors and my thoughts about the books I read for this event, starting with the author on the right and the book he is reading from.


From left to right: Craig Sisterton, Graeme Macrae Burnet, Michael Ridpath, Craig Russell

The Ghosts of Altona, the 7th in Craig Russell’s Jan Fabel series is set in Hamburg, and won the 2015 Scottish Crime Novel of the Year. (The final one incidentally.  The prize has now been renamed the McIlvanney Prize.)  I hadn’t heard of the author before (despite him being a recipient of the CWA Dagger in the Library), but an award-winning book set in Germany was always going to demand my attention.  The question was, do I start with book 1 or with book 7?  Unusually I plumped for Book 7, because then I would be up-to-date and wouldn’t need to read the 6 earlier books ….

image…  or so I thought.  What I found between these pages sent me immediately to the website of Bookdonors, where I purchased the first 3 of the series in the current 3 for 2 offer.   For the ghosts of Altona are the living dead – those who have returned from near death experiences, including the detective Jan Fabel himself.  Fabel is happy to be alive, although some with similar experiences are not.  This includes a social worker now suffering from Cotard’s syndrome (believing he is dead.)  Another ghost is losing his mind and all too aware of what is happening and so writes a note to himself to remind him of the reasons why he must kill his fellow old-timer and best friend.   But Monika is the most haunting ghost of them all.  The discovery of her remains is the trigger for a killing spree linking former members of a death cult and perhaps the  most chilling psychopath ever with all of those identified above,  and Jan Fabel is determined to crack the case.  After all, he failed to do so 25 years previously when he was just a rookie.

Amidst the action are some compelling psychological portraits as well as the argument about near death experience.  Is it a supernatural one or are there rational, biological explanations?  However, the determining factor in my decision to read the entire series is the way Russell, a fellow Germanophile, has interwoven German cultural references, specifically gothic and Romantic ones into the story.  Oh yes, I’ll happily take as many novels as Russell cares to write playing that particular riff.

As will the Germans.  Such is their appreciation for the series that they have made 3 Jan Fabel films, and the Hamburg Police have awarded Russell the Hamburg Police Star.

imageMichael Ridpath, on the other hand,  cannot find a German publisher for his spy series set in Nazi Germany.  The difficulty lies in the hero  being a Prussian military officer.  As Ridpath explained to me in the signing queue, this are still some sensitivities regarding Prussian militarism in contemporary Germany.

The first in the series is set in 1938 when Hitler was steering Europe towards war.  Consternation on both sides: the German army worried that this would be a war they could not win; British politicians also, although they were divided in their approach. Should they appease Hitler or stand behind Czechoslovakia over the issue of the Sudetenland?    Enter Ridpath’s two protagonists.  For the British, Conrad de Lancey, once a pacifist, but now a disillusioned anti-fascist fighter in the Spanish Civil War.  After moving to Berlin, an innocent meeting with his Russian spy cousin, marks his card and he falls into the hands of the Gestapo.  He is saved by Theo, a childhood friend, the honourable Prussian officer and member of the Abwehr, the German secret service over which the Gestapo holds no sway, the organisation planning a coup in order to prevent Hitler destroying their country.  Theo tries to enlist Conrad to glean information about British intentions, as do the British to find out what the Germans are planning.  Conrad, however, wants none of it.  He is still trying to come to terms with the betrayal of his politcal ideals in Spain, the more personal betrayal of his wife, and the death of his cousin in Gestapo hands.  But he cannot fail to see the injustices and barbarity of Nazi society, particularly when he becomes romantically involved with a Jewess.

“I wanted to explore what makes a man turn traitor”, said Ridpath during the Bloody Scotland event.  My issue is that the traitor I identify isn’t one of the protagonists.  Both Theo and Conrad fight against the evil of Nazism, but that is a favourable judgment enabled through the passage of time.  In 1938 though, Theo was acting against the established government and Conrad on behalf of a foreign power ….

If the character studies of both men are compelling, so too is that of Klaus Schalke, the Gestapo antagonist.  He provides a study on the corrupting and brutalising effect of absolute power. A reluctant Nazi at first, he is sucked in ever deeper once recruited by Heydrich for his information gathering skills.  That position gives him power to be implacable, particularly when dealing with personal grudges.

Traitor’s Gate is based on historical fact. The afterword tells plans in place to overthrow Hitler in September 1938 and Chamberlain knew that the coup would be triggered if Britain held firm on the question of the Sudetenland.  Let’s hope he (Chamberlain) makes the right decision, says one of the characters. The rest, they say, is history, and Ridpath’s version of events leaves us in no doubt as to the true cost of that infamous peace in our lifetime. The fantastic thing is that the suspense is in no way jeopardised by our knowledge of historical outcomes.  I was shaking (literally) as I read the last few chapters.  So, yes, I will read the sequel, but I’ll need to take a breather first.

imageLast, but by no means least, you may recognise the author sitting to the right of Craig Sisterton.  Graeme Macrae Burnet’s second novel, His Bloody Project, has just been shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  However, it was his debut, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau that was the prime interest here.  The novel had been sitting in my TBR since last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival where it came to my attention as I just finished talking to Georges Simenon’s son.  (I meet lots of interesting people in Charlotte Square.)   Enter a tall Scot, who gave a copy of said book to John Simenon.  I’d like you to have a copy of this novel that I wrote in homage to your father, he said.  Oh, thought I, I’ll  have to get me a copy of that …..

12 months later I read it.  The focus at Bloody Scotland was the location, a small French town,  Saint-Louis, in general and the Restaurant de la Cloche in particular.  Manfred Baumann dines here every single day.  The menu changes daily, in a weekly cycle.  So each Monday Manfred eats the same thing, each Tuesday too.  In fact, he is OCD about his routine.  He does not want to raise people’s suspicions. What is there to be suspicious of?  Oh yes, there is a very dark secret in Manfred’s past, which influences his behaviour and may have a bearing on the disappearance of the waitress, Adèle.

Manfred is an oddfish, an outsider, tolerated, never really accepted and, therefore, prime suspect.  He compounds his problems by lying to the investigating inspector, Gorski, and the reader knows he’s lying.  The seeds of doubt and his downfall are sown ….

Gorski has his own problems, mainly his harridan wife, who realises she has married beneath herself.  No Madame Maigret, she, although Gorski’s style is akin to that of Inspector Maigret.  He does not rush his investigation.  He’s happy to wait for his prey to confess, even when he has caught him in the lie.  Nor will he give up on his first case.  He knows the wrong man was jailed for that.

Macrae Burnet’s style is clear and downstated au Simenon, if you will.  (Not  quite as plain though.) The chauvinism of the early 1980’s won’t always please the politically correct of the 20-teens, but so what?  There has also been criticism that the female characters aren’t well-rounded.  Give me a break – Simenon often didn’t write well-rounded female character studies either. I did enjoy the book and the sometimes subtle nods to Simenon (riffs from The Man Who Watched Trains go by, for instance),  but I did feel that the dénouement regarding Manfred was hurried.  Also I was a bit puzzled by the post-modern conceit that the novel is a translation of a novel by Raymond Brunet with the requirement for an afterword by the translator Graeme Macrae Burnet. Likely that puzzlement will disappear on publication of Macrae Burnet’s Brunet’s next novel, which will return us to Saint-Louis. Looking forward to it.

Read Full Post »

imageTranslated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is a psychologist and her deep insight into human nature infuses every page of her second novel to be translated into English.  At her recent Edinburgh Book Festival event she made the following points:

a) We each have more than one personality.  Our lives do not follow a single arc.
b) We spend a lot of time hiding our true nature.   We make ourselves attractive so that  others do not see the real person beneath.
c) We often choose not to see what is right in front of us.

The drama involving Eitan, his wife, and an Ethiopian illegal immigrant, Sirkit is designed to show how this plays out in life.

Eitan Green is a neurosurgeon.  He lives with his wife, Liat, and his two young sons in Beersheba.  They are happy despite his posting to a dusty, southern outback being a kind of demotion, a punishment for causing waves in his previous post in Jerusalem.  Yet Eitan’s life and all his assumptions about himself are changed in an instant.

He’s thinking that the moon is the most beautiful he has ever seen when he hits the man.

What is Eitan going to do?  The doctor in him forces him out of the car.  The doctor in him ascertains that the man, an illegal Ethiopian immigrant, is beyond help.  The man in him realises that reporting the accident could lead to the loss of his family and career.  Also that there are no witnesses.  So, surprising the honest Eitan in himself (see a) above), he drives off.

The following day, with Eitan feeling no guilt, there is a knock at the door.

The woman at the door was tall, thin and very beautiful, but Eitan didn’t notice any of those details.  Two others captured his full attention: she was Eritrean and she was holding his wallet in her hand.

And it is at that moment that Eitan’s universe tilts on its axis because the woman, Sirkit, holds more than the wallet, which Eitan dropped when examining the dying man.  She holds, for the first time in her life,  absolute power.  The lion, the predator within her, has been awoken and she is on the prowl. What does she want?  Not money.  She wants Eitan to establish an illegal field hospital for the multitude of sick Eritrean immigrants and for him to treat them, for free, whenever he is not working at the hospital.  However, don’t believe that Sirkit is motivated by altruism.  It takes a while for her motives to be revealed.  Bear in mind point b) above.

Which leaves us with point c) and Liat, Eitan’s wife, is the prime example of this.  She is a detective and ironically, tasked with finding the hit and run driver.  While the rest of the force is happy to sweep it under the carpet (it’s just another illegal immigrant), Liat is not. Yet when faced with Eitan’s ever-increasing absences, his deteriorating appearance, and the breakdown in their up-till-now model communications, she is not prepared to ask the questions that need asking – at least not until the point of almost no return.

The foregoing basically scratches the surface of the psychological drama at the heart of Waking Lions.  The relationship between Sirkit and Eitan, blackmailer and blackmailee,  isn’t confined to hatred.  Gradually the muscles of hatred grow tired said Ayelet Gunden-Goshar.  Which leads to more complications for Eitan. His involvement  makes him aware of the Etritreans and their plight for the first time.  He begins to feel empathy for them, which  means he does not walk away when circumstances lead to the balance of power shifting between Sirkit and himself.


Ayelet Gunden-Goshar 20.08.2016

At times the relationship between Sirkit and Eitan feels like a deadly embrace. There needs to be a catalyst to break it.  And that is provided by the fact that Eitan not only killed an illegal immigrant but also a drug-mule.  Not only does this provide the acceleration to the thrillery climax, it gives Gunden-Goshar opportunity to investigate the stratified nature of contemporary society in Israel.  At the bottom the illegal, and for the most part invisible Etritreans, who find they have not walked to a promised land.  Above them – just – the Bedouins, reduced to making a living by providing tourist shows.  And then the Jews:  the Arab Jews who are discriminated agrainst by the European Jews.

Such an informative and surprising novel with lots of content in its 409 pages.  I did feel a little drag around the half-way point, but, I suppose this reflects the situation Eitan was in at this point – there was no light at the end of the tunnel for him.  It may also have been the efffect of reading the novel in snatches, as I travelled back and forth to Edinburgh.  Regardless I’m glad I pushed on through.  I was well rewarded for my efforts.

Read Full Post »

imageOne after the other reviews extolling the perfection of Maggie O’Farrell’s latest and most ambitious novel come rolling in. I appear to be out of kilter with general consensus though.

What was I missing?  1) The emotional engagement I had with Esme Lennox  and 2) a novel that turned the pages of its own accord.

This will surprise many – it surprised me, particularly as the first chapter is simply hilarious, one of the best first chapters I’ve read in ages.  And the following chapters, establishing the stories and tragedies of Daniel, his ex-film star wife, Claudette, and their immediate family pulled me in.  There is something profound and sympathetic about the flawed characters in this book,  and it is this honesty that is the novel’s greatest strength.

Somewhere around page 250, though, I found myself wondering whether to read to the end.  I did, but reluctantly.

It didn’t help that I wasn’t as in love with Claudette as Daniel (though I did mellow towards her in the final third of the novel).

I did tire of the “technically dazzling” (Guardian) structure.  O’Farrell tells this story of mental and marital breakdown from the point-of-view of no less than 7 different characters. (There may be more, but I can name 7 off-hand.) These narratives are not told  in chronological sequence.  Episodic incidents shuttle back and forth through time.  Secrets revealed in one chapter unfold in minute detail 100-150 pages later.   Obviously the events aren’t of prime importance, the impact of those events on the minds of the characters is.  I have nothing against working the reader like this per se,  nor of the post-modern inserting of a museum catalogue of the ex-film star’s artifacts or of an interview with her former film director partner.  But the resulting repetitions do extend the length of the novel, in my opinion unnecessarily at times.  My biggest problem, however, was that in many of the chapters the narrative voices didn’t differentiate themselves sufficiently. (Perhaps this is where listening to the audio book enhances the experience.)

That said, there is some wonderfully perceptive writing.  I’ve already commented on the insight of the psychological character studies.  I also appreciated the details of the physical tortures caused by eczema (based, if I remember rightly from previous author events, on the experience of the author’s daughter), and must admit that Niall, the eczema sufferer was my favourite character.  Landscapes too deserve mention.  Whether rural Donegal,  or the salt desert of Bolivia, O’Farrell transported me directly to her chosen locations. As for the place of the title,  the place that is home, that is for Daniel to decide upon. The novel is, at its core, the telling of his finding it.




Read Full Post »

imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

Marian Sutro is a British operative working with the French resistance.  In 1944 she is betrayed and finds herself in Ravensbruck concentration camp; an experience she barely survives – No longer the confident woman she had been.  Following the war, she tries to return to normal life, but there are the Nazi War Trials to endure.   She marries a – shall we say – compromise candidate, but as she regains her spirit, she finds life in the early 50’s too humdrum.  The Cold War needs to be fought, and, gradually she is sucked back into the life of an intelligence agent.  However, deeply concerned at the imbalance of power resulting from the creation of the atom bomb, the scene is set for Marian to turn traitor in the name of peace.

When I read Mawer’s Booker-shortlisted The Glass Room, I had reservations about both structure and characterisation.  No such issues here.   I found the psychological portrait of Marian’s recovery fascinating.  Her wartime experiences are pivotal but appear mostly in – deeply disturbing – flashback.  She is walking a tightrope – struggling to maintain her balance in a world that considers her a heroine, that wants her to relive the nightmare giving evidence at the war trials, when all she wants is to bury her past and move on.  When she does so, her past catches up with her and seemingly casual acquaintances attain much deeper significance.

There is, of course, also the political tightrope at the heart of events.  This is the Cold War era before MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) and, within its pages Mawer explores the rationale of those who were willing to pass scientific secrets to the Russians.  This is where the pace picks up, especially as Marian becomes involved in a honey trap à deux.  Highly immersive reading. Impossible to predict the outcome.

But who has all the insider information, because it’s made clear that this information is not contained in Marian’s official papers.  A framework device, for which I’m a complete sucker (blame Theodor Storm) takes care of that.


Having completed my reading of the entire 2016 shortlist, I’m now faced with a decision.  To which novel should I award my shadow prize?  Mrs Engels was in prime position until I read Tightrope, and now I’m torn.  Given the scarcity of historical source material, McCrae’s Lizzie Burns is a finer feat of literary imagination.  Yet Mawer’s novel, set just a handful of years before I was born, is meticulous in its historical detail, and  has made me ponder the origins of the MAD world I was born into more than I have ever done before.  I need to go away and argue with myself for a few days.  Hopefully I’ll come to a decision before the official announcement on Saturday afternoon.

Read Full Post »

imageThe fifth novel on TJ’s #12germansin2016 list is one I would never have read, if left to my own devices.  There are too many reasons not to read holocaust novels to list them here.  And yet, somehow this modern classic was waiting in the TBR for its moment to come, and so ….

In a previous review I was bemoaning a lack of sheer brilliance and emotional cataclysm.  Becker put that to rights and didn’t take many pages to do it. 15 pages in and  I knew I was reading a masterpiece.  At this point I wondered how many awards it had won:  Heinrich Mann Prize (1971), Charles Veillon Prize (1971) and this 1990 translation by Leila Vennewitz won the Helen and Kurt Wolf Translator’s Prize.

Jacob Heym is wandering around the Jewish Ghetto shortly before curfew, when he gets caught in the spotlight.  The guard, pretending that Jacob has violated curfew, sends him to the police station for punishment.  Now two miraculous things happen.  1) Jacob overhears a radio report concerning the Russian advance and 2) he gets to leave the police station alive.   The new report gives Jacob hope.  The following day he blurts out the news to his friend Mischa in order to prevent him from doing something stupid.  How do you know that? queries Mischa.  Unable to tell the truth, because no-one would believe he had come out of the police station alive (unless he were there to denounce someone), Jacob tells Mischa that he has a radio.  And this lie fuels the rest of the novel.

Radios are, of course, verboten, and to possess one is a capital offence.  This, however, is the least of Jacob’s problems.  As news of his radio spreads, so too does the need of the persecuted for updated bulletins.  Jacob finds himself having to take risks to get snippets of information from the outside.  But it’s too dangerous and so Jacob Heym gets creative.

What he’s doing is a good thing, isn’t it?  Bringing hope to the thousands of Jews, whose only way out of the Ghetto is a transport to the death camps.  If only it were as simple as that.  Not everyone welcomes the news of the radio – if the Germans hear of it, there could be a mass deportation to the camps as punishment.  And hope, in these twisted circumstances, also leads directly to the death of one who passes it on to a wagon-load of Jewish prisoners couped up in the sidings.

That one little lie turns into a real burden for Jacob, who is no hero.  He’s a curmudgeon, a loner, not a social creature at all.  Nor does his want his new role, but he recognises that the suicides have stopped and so he continues to make up his stories to keep his fellow Jews from falling into despair.  The Russians really aren’t that far away.  Deliverance is at hand.  We just need to survive a little while longer.

Easier said than done in a place where walking the streets without the identifying yellow star results in a one-way ticket for the offender and his family to the death camps.  Where whole streets are cleared on a whim.  Taking us deep into the heart of the ghetto, Becker details practical realities and individual histories across the social classes without any sentimentality.  The struggle, the despair and the arbitrariness of survival, but also the continuing humanity and dignity of an oppressed people, which cannot be vanquished even in the face of the grossest cruelty.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the telling is the narrator.  It took a while for me to identify him and to work out how he got his insider knowledge.  The realisation is heart-breaking.  For no matter how much the narrator (and the reader) wants this to end well and to believe in  the first fictitious ending, the second one reflects the tragic truth of the matter.  When the Russians finally liberated the Lodz ghetto, they found only 877 Jews alive.  The rest had been transported to the camps – among them a young lad named Jurek Becker.  Fortunately he survived.  Years later he penned this astonishing novel,  and I suspect I’ve just read my book of the year.

Thank you, TJ.



Read Full Post »

Older Posts »