|THE AUSCHWITZ VIOLIN
Maria Ãngels Anglada
Translated by Martha Tennent
Corsair/Constable & Robinson (www.constablerobinson.com)
For a long time, I have been fascinated by the events of the Holocaust, by the stories of the individuals, on both sides of the metaphorical fence, who were caught up in those terrible events. I can trace this fascination back to 1993 and the image of that small red coat weaving through a black-and-white landscape of terror and death as I watched, in awe, as Steven Spielberg told the story of Schindler’s List. In the intervening years, I’ve visited Prague, Berlin and the small town of Obersalzberg, seen the sights, read the stories and soaked up the atmosphere. And the fascination lingers. As a result, I’m drawn to this specialist genre of “Holocaust fiction” – John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas; Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key – and its companion “Holocaust non-fiction” – the inspiration for the aforementioned Spielberg film, Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally; the excellent The Nuremberg Interviews: Conversations with the Defendants and Witnesses by Leon Goldensohn. When I saw Maria Ãngels Anglada’s The Auschwitz Violin on the shelf of my local bookshop, then, it was a foregone conclusion that it would end up part of my own collection.
The novel opens in the winter of 1991. Climent, a world-reknowned violinist who plays as part of a trio, arrives in Krakow as part of a European tour. During a concert, he is struck by the beautiful sound of the instrument played by the orchestra’s first violinist. Keen to discover more, he strikes up a friendship with the older woman. As he is waiting in the airport, he is given a stack of papers and as he reads, he discovers the horrific and fascinating tale of the violin’s origins, and of the man who made it. Daniel, a Jewish luthier, crafted the beautiful instrument during his incarceration in one of the many sub-camps of Auschwitz. Working on the violin in the mornings, and in the I. G. Farben factory in the afternoons, he soon discovers that as well as making the best violin he can, he’s also fighting for his own survival: his work on the instrument is the subject of a cruel wager between the camp’s commander and the evil Dr Rascher, and his own life is forfeit should he fail.
The Auschwitz Violin is a work of fiction, something that is easy to forget as you read, although it is populated here and there with historical figures: Schindler puts in an appearance; and Auschwitz’s Dr Sigmund Rascher, who used the endless supply of “subhumans” in the camp as subjects in his inhuman medical experiments, is a dark and disturbing figure ever in the background. The slim novel – it weighs in at just over one hundred pages – is interspersed with actual SS documentation which, in itself, is something of an educational and harrowing read (“Women’s hair: …3000 kilos,” an “Inventory of Clothes and Other Objects Collected at the Lublin and Auschwitz Concentration Camps” tells us).
Short as it is, this is a powerful and emotional story that will leave an indelible mark on the mind of anyone who reads it. More than the story of a talented young man and the beautiful violin he creates, it’s a story of hope and of man’s innate desire to live, to keep going despite the fact that there is no light at the end of the tunnel. It’s also a story about love and friendship, and of the bonds that form under seemingly impossible circumstances. Anglada has captured perfectly the horror of the camp, the stress and exhaustion that the inmates suffer. The Daniel we meet is but a shadow of the man he once was, and we experience life in Auschwitz through his eyes: the joy when he discovers that his wife is relatively safe, better-fed and -treated than the poor wretches with whom he shares the camp; the horror as he discovers that he has been promised to Rascher should he fail to complete the violin, a horror that is made worse by the fact that he has no idea what his deadline is; the tiredness caused by being overworked and underfed, and the constant terror of falling asleep “on the job”, which will lead to certain death.
The Auschwitz Violin is short and bittersweet. It’s a beautiful little novel, wonderfully written. Corsair have done an excellent job, from the packaging down to the unusual font used to present the story, which makes this slim volume perfect for any collector’s shelf. If you’re at all interested in this subject, or if you enjoyed the stories of Schindler or that young boy in the striped pyjamas, then this is definitely one for you. I would love to see this novel reach a wider audience, and hope that people take advantage of the fact that it is now available in English – for the first time – to pick it up and give it a try.
|KILLED AT THE WHIM OF A HAT
Colin Cotterill (www.colincotterill.com)
“Free societies are hopeful societies. And free societies will be allies against these hateful few who have no conscience, who kill at the whim of a hat.”
As Colin Cotterill’s latest novel – the first in a series featuring crime reporter Jimm Juree – opens, we find ourselves in rural southern Thailand as Old Mel and his able-bodied (if not -minded) assistant attempt to dig a well to irrigate the twenty palms that grow along the back fence of his property. In an attempt to shift a piece of metal that is blocking their way, the younger man finds himself falling into space and landing on what turns out to be the bed in a Volkswagen Kombi. As his eyes adjust to the darkness, he discovers that the camper’s original inhabitants are still strapped into the front seats.
Enter Jimm Juree, once a top crime reporter for the Chiang Mai Mail, now living in a small resort hotel on the Gulf of Siam, against her wishes and better judgement. The move had been instigated by her mother, slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s, who, without consulting the family, sold their property in the city and bought the aforementioned resort hotel in the somewhat backwards Maprao. Jimm latches onto the story, two decades-old dead bodies being better than no dead bodies, which is what she has seen in the eight months since her move. Befriending a number of the local constabulary, Jimm soon learns that a third murder has been committed, this one much more recent: an abbot at a local temple has been brutally stabbed to death, and Jimm takes it upon herself to help the local police investigate the crime.
If you’re a regular reader of the blog (or even if you have a brief scan through some of the titles I’ve reviewed), you’ll know that I like my crime fiction dark. So it was with some trepidation that I started in on latest offering from the man behind the Laos-set Dr Siri series. The book, like the region is which it is set, is somewhat slow and laid-back. Cotterill describes the area as having a “southern temperament”, and his description fits the story perfectly. It’s an intriguing set of mysteries, each with an unexpected resolution that will nonetheless leave the reader satisfied. To a certain extent, plot is secondary, and the beauty and strength of Killed at the Whim of a Hat lies in the offbeat characters that populate its pages, and the relationships that form between them as they become embroiled in the mysteries that surround them.
The chapters are headed by snippets of speeches given by George W. Bush, each containing one of the man’s trademark “Bushisms”. The quote at the top of this review is, as may be obvious, the source for the novel’s title. The reason for the quotes becomes obvious partway through the book, but they fit nicely with the sense of “oddness” that runs through the novel – there is something slightly skewed about this small chunk of land on the Gulf of Siam, not in any sinister way. Maybe it’s just that southern temperament again.
The book is frequently funny, and I found myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion. Take this exchange between Old Mel and his helper:
“There’s skeletons down here.”
“They animal bones boy?” he asked, just to humour the lad.
“No, Old Mel. They’re people all right.”
“How can you tell?”
“One’s wearing a hat.”
Or this quote from the police, as contained in Jimm’s report:
“I can tell you that this was either an accident, murder or an act of nature.” The captain was not, however, prepared to rule out suicide.
While it won’t appeal to everyone, Killed at the Whim of a Hat is an engaging and entertaining novel. The humour, like the characters who are its source, is natural and unforced. There is enough of a plot to give the characters motivation, but when it comes down to the bit, this is a story about Jimm Juree, her family, and the friends she has made in her new home. In that sense, it’s a no-brainer for people who like Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, to which it’s likely to be favourably compared. For me, though, it has proved that the old saw about books and covers is still very true: it may not be as dark as I like, but there’s enough of an undercurrent, along with all of the book’s other strengths to make it a worthwhile read, and to make me want to come back for the second book, if only to see how quickly Cotterill can turn the Lang Suan region into the murder capital of the world.
Kim Newman (www.johnnyalucard.com)
Titan Books (titanbooks.com)
Is there a more interesting and populated place and time in recent history than London in the twilight years of the nineteenth century? Peopled by a huge cast of people real and fictional, it is a location and period ripe with opportunity and ideas for any artist willing to do a little research. Anno Dracula, Kim Newman’s cult 1992 horror/romance/alternate history novel takes advantage of this and gives us a view on what London might have been like in 1888 had Dracula not only survived the events of Bram Stoker’s seminal novel, but married Queen Victoria and taken the title of Prince Consort. Published by Titan Books, this cult classic has once again been made available to a wide audience.
The book diverges from Stoker’s novel at the point where Dracula is interrupted in his attempt to “turn” Mina Harker; instead of fleeing, he kills Jonathan Harker and Quincey Morris, scattering the rest of the group and finishing his business with Mina. From there, his rise to power is unstoppable, culminating in his marriage to the queen, and England’s move towards being the foremost vampire nation. As the novel opens, it is 1888, and Jack the Ripper has claimed his third victim. In this alternate universe, the Ripper is exclusively a killer of vampire prostitutes, which has the effect of forcing ever deeper the wedge between vampire and warm (humans). This is a very different London to the one we know: vampires occupy almost every position of power and a full-blown dictatorship is in effect. Dissenters and threats to the crown have been shipped off to concentration camps in the middle of the English countryside, where they will ultimately serve as cattle for the ever-growing vampire population.
Newman’s encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema and horror shines throughout. Only a handful of the characters we meet are original to the author. As well as the remnants of Dracula’s enemies – Dr John Seward and Arthur Holmwood, now Lord Godalming – we encounter, amongst others, the creations of Arthur Conan Doyle (Mycroft Holmes (his brother Sherlock ensconced in one of the aforementioned concentration camps), Moriarty), Sax Rohmer, H.G. Wells, Charles Dickens alongside the likes of Florence Stoker (her husband, Bram, sharing a compound with Sherlock Holmes), Oscar Wilde and Fred Abberline. Into this mix, Newman introduces Charles Beauregard, agent for the shady Diogenes Club, and Genevieve Dieudonne, a four-and-a-half century old vampire who is older even than Dracula.
Beauregard is a sort of nineteenth century John Steed, sword-cane and all: a man about town with a sinister and dangerous background and the skills to ensure his own survival at the expense of an enemy’s. Instructed by the cabal that runs the Diogenes Club (an institution that originates in the work of Conan Doyle) to investigate the Ripper murders, he meets the young-looking Genevieve and together they comb Whitechapel for clues to the identity of the murderer. All around them, the country is falling apart as growing dissent greets the ever tightening grip of the Impaler.
To use Newman’s own phrase, Anno Dracula is an ‘overpopulated period-set “romp”’, and a great deal of time can be spent – and fun had – trying to identify the origins of characters. Despite that, it’s a tightly-plotted and brilliantly-conceived novel that pays homage not only to Stoker’s Dracula, but to the vampire genre in general. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this novel is the fact that Dracula himself is absent for the vast majority of it, putting in a short appearance at the very end in a wonderful and wholly unexpected climax. Despite the subject matter, Newman presents us with a conceivable alternate London: the tensions between vampire and warm, between rich and poor; a city where the rule of law exists hand in hand with the ways of Vlad the Impaler and his kind; a city terrorised by an infamous murderer (the identity of whom is revealed to the reader in the first chapter) whose motives have been shaped to fit this new world order.
If, like me, you missed Anno Dracula the first time around, then this is the perfect opportunity to read one of the finest modern vampire novels ever written, up there with what I consider to the be the “big three”: Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, Robert McCammon’s They Thirst and George R. R. Martin’s Fevre Dream. Once done, you can take comfort in the fact that Titan will be publishing several other books in the series, so you won’t have to wait too long for your next fix.
Stephen King (www.stephenking.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
(Available as an ebook)
Before I let you know what I thought of Stephen King’s latest work, the short story/novelette Mile 81, I feel it’s only fair to talk a bit about Stephen King, and what you’re letting yourself in for should you wish to proceed and read my review.
I’ve been a die hard Stephen King fan since I discovered Skeleton Crew back when I was around 12 years old (I’m now 35). My first King novel was Pet Sematary, and from there on, I was hooked. When anyone asks who my favourite author is, I can say without a second thought that it is King – sure there are others whose work I love: Stephenson, Marshall (Smith), Gaiman, etc. – but for me, none of them will ever come close. Some might call me a rabid fan, but I like to think of myself as, simply, a fan, and a collector. Like most people in this by-no-means-exclusive club, I was devastated (and not totally for altruistic reasons) in mid-1999 when the news of King’s accident was announced, and again in early-2002 when an out-of-context quote made it look like he would be retiring before the end of that year. Now, almost 10 years later, King is still producing some of the finest fiction on offer, and for me, and many like me, the announcement of a new King work is an event in itself, and a reason to celebrate. With that in mind…
Often described as America’s best-loved bogeyman, Stephen King is, above all else, a chronicler of modern day America and the pop culture that pervades everything both inside and outside that country. I remember reading (perhaps in the foreword) that the majority of the work that went into producing the Complete and Uncut edition of The Stand was updating all of the cultural references from the original late-70s timeframe to the new early-90s one. His latest piece of work, labelled variously as short story, novella and novelette is the creepy and wonderful Mile 81, released as an ebook in the US and UK.
The Mile 81 of the title is a disused rest stop on Maine’s I-95. The building, which once housed the usual assortment of eateries and shops that one finds in American rest stops, now plays host to local teenagers looking for somewhere to drink, smoke and date in relative peace and quiet. When Pete Simmons, ten years old and with something to prove to his older brother, finds the older kids’ way in, the rest stop is as it has been for the past year: orange barrels block access from the interstate and the place is deserted, weeds already starting to push their way through the road surface. As Pete sleeps off a couple of nips from a found bottle of vodka, though, everything changes: a station wagon, make and model indiscernible under a layer of mud, crashes through the barriers, rolls to a stop on the ramp and sits, driver’s door ajar, waiting.
King has dealt with creepy cars before in the past, most famously in his 1983 novel, Christine, but also in the more recent From a Buick 8. For Mile 81, he ups the creepy quotient a couple of notches and we find ourselves watching in disbelief as the car eats the handful of good Samaritans who decide to stop and see if they can help the owners of the ever-growing fleet of cars building up on the disused off-ramp. Ridiculous as the premise might sound, in the hands of King, and his matter-of-fact storytelling, it’s no less believable than, say, that red and white ‘58 Plymouth Fury, or a Saint Bernard that suddenly goes rabid. As ever, King’s grasp of how ordinary people think and speak is impeccable, as in this example of the last thoughts of one of the car’s victims as it is snacking on his arm:
He could see glistening fingerbones from which the flesh had been sucked, and he had a brief, nightmarish image of chewing on one of the Colonel’s chicken wings. Get it all before you put that down, his mother used to say, the meat’s sweetest closest to the bone.
Of course, no King novel would be complete without the ubiquitous references to the world around us. Expect references to everything from Boardwalk Empire and American Vampire to Justin Bieber (ten-year-old Pete is the eldest of the three main characters). There’s even a sneaky little self-reference or two for the eagle-eyed Constant Reader.
Mile 81 would fit perfectly between the covers of Skeleton Crew, King’s first – and probably best (let’s face it, The Mist is worth the price of admission alone) – short story collection, or it’s follow-up, Night Shift. It’s a short, sharp gruesome tale from a man who is as comfortable with the short form as he is with the long (and the extra-long). It’s more in the tradition of those old all-out horror stories he used to write (The Mist, The Bogeyman, The Mangler), than the quietly disturbing ones he has been producing in recent years. There’s something about the story, how it’s told, the pace and style, that let’s you know, from the start, that King loved every minute that he was writing it. It’s an infectious feeling and I challenge anyone to read the first chapter and not have to finish it in a single sitting. This is classic King and should appeal to fans both old and new. It’s at once scary, funny and extremely insightful. And it’s just enough to tide us over until November 8th, until we can get our hands on 11/22/63.