|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.
|COMEDY IN A MINOR KEY
Translated by Damion Searls (www.damionsearls.com)
Hesperus Press (www.hesperuspress.com)
Hesperus Press are new to me. For a while now, it seems, they have been publishing long overlooked foreign fiction that has never before been translated to English, or hasn’t been available for a long time. Hans Keilson, still alive according to what I can find out about him online, at the goodly age of 101, was forced to flee from Germany to the Netherlands during WWII. He’s Jewish, which shows this short novel in a somewhat different light. Comedy in a Minor Key was originally written in 1947.
As the story opens, we find ourselves in the home of young Dutch couple Wim and Marie as a doctor examines the man who is lying dead in their guest room bed. Outside, the sounds of planes and distant explosions as allied forces make their way across the English Channel and Holland, striking out for Berlin. It is some undefined point during the Second World War. The dead man is Nico, a Jew who the couple has been hiding for the past year. As the story progresses, we get to meet Nico as he arrives, and at various points throughout his year-long stay with the couple, intertwined with the story of how Wim, Marie and the doctor plan to resolve the predicament in which they now find themselves.
By modern standards, this is quite a short novel – around 100 pages, all in, which is the perfect length for Keilson to tell the story he wishes to tell without any unnecessary padding. The characters come immediately to life (although, admittedly, it took me several chapters to come to terms with the fact that the couple at the centre of the story are in their late thirties, rather than their mid-fifties, which may be more a sign of the times than anything else), and we find ourselves immediately thrust into the centre of things. The tone of the novel, surprisingly given its subject matter, is almost light-hearted, and flashbacks give us a picture of three people who are making the best of a bad situation. Nico has his dark moments, his periods of hating Wim and Marie for their relative freedom, but he’s a realist, and knows that they are the only reason he is still alive. Meanwhile, the young couple are coming to terms with the fact that they have a stranger living upstairs, a man who, if he were found out, could be the nail in their own coffins.
It is surprising, then, that the circle of confidence grows, and more people become aware of their situation. It’s a clear indication that this is a simple tale of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances: Wim and Marie aren’t part of any underground resistance movement, secret warriors out to subvert the tyrannical regime under which they’re forced to live; they are an ordinary couple, doing their best to help out a fellow human in dire straits because they have the means to do so.
Towards the end, the story takes a darker turn and we follow Wim and Marie, however briefly, into hell. But overall, it’s an upbeat story and everyone, the reader included, comes away feeling a little better about the world. Imagine the Diary of Anne Frank as told to Joseph Heller – there are moments of pure farce here, but also moments that remind us exactly what’s going on, and exactly what’s at stake.
A surprisingly uplifting read. Keilson gives us a real testament to man’s humanity to man in the face of so much inhumanity: this is not a true story, but it’s probably not far from the truth for many people throughout Europe in those dark days. It’s a novel that is likely to remain with me for some time to come, and one I will revisit in the future. Well done to Hesperus Press for making it available to an English-speaking audience.