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Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS by John Boyne

Boy-in-Striped-Pyjamas-Cover THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS

John Boyne (johnboyne.com)

Illustrated by Oliver Jeffers (www.oliverjeffers.com)

Doubleday (www.penguinrandomhouse.co.uk)

£14.99

Bruno is nine years old when his father’s job forces the family to pack up their beautiful Berlin home and move to the desolate Polish countryside. This is Out-With, a cold and unpleasant place where neither Bruno nor his sister want to stay, both missing their friends and the hustle and bustle of central Berlin. There is a window in Bruno’s bedroom, and it overlooks the tall barbed-wire fence that stretches for miles in either direction at the end of their garden. From the window, Bruno can see that hundreds, if not thousands, of people are living on the other side of the barbed wire fence, all of them dressed in the same striped pyjamas and cloth caps. It strikes Bruno as unfair, so many people over on the other side of the fence while he is on this side, alone but for his sister (a Hopeless Case), until the day he decides to go for a walk, and makes a friend in Shmuel, a boy from the other side.

John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was an instant classic when it was first published in 2006. Ten years on, and it is still as powerful and touching as it ever was. In it, we meet Bruno, and watch events unfold through his young, naïve eyes. Bruno is the son of the Commandant of the Auschwitz (Out-With) concentration camp, and finds himself uprooted from his happy life in Berlin (where he spends his days with his three best friends for life) and transplanted to a “horrible” new home in the middle of nowhere.

While it is obvious to the reader, with the benefit of 70 years of hindsight, what is going on, Bruno’s innocence, and the immediacy of what he finds himself in the middle of, give us a fresh perspective on a well-known story. Terrible things are happening here, but Bruno’s young and idealistic mind refuses to let him consider this, seeing the barbed-wire fence not as an enclosure, but simply as a wall preventing him from making friends with the hundreds of children who obviously live on the other side of it. And in the way of all small boys, Bruno cannot comprehend a scenario in which his father is evil, even if he is more than a little distant. To the reader, of course, his father’s attitude – not to mention his acceptance of the position – show his true colours.

‘No, not them,’ said Bruno. ‘The people I see from my window. In the huts, in the distance. They’re all dressed the same.’

‘Ah, those people,’ said Father, nodding his head and smiling slightly. ‘Those people…well, they’re not people at all, Bruno.’

When Bruno meets Shmuel, a young boy on the other side of the fence, his opinion of Out-With begins to change, but not as we might expect. Shmuel shares Bruno’s birthday, and is the son of a Polish watchmaker. Nothing but circumstance – the vagaries of their parents’ religions – separates the fates of these two boys, putting one outside the fence – well-fed and cared for – and the other inside – starving, overworked and, though neither of the boys can possibly understanding, facing almost-certain death. Bruno begins to enjoy his time here, and his long talks with Shmuel, seeming to wilfully ignore the horror of Shmuel’s circumstances – rebuffing tales of horror inside the camp with tales of his own misfortune, like the fact that they have left a five-storey house in the middle of Berlin to live in a three-storey house in a far-away place.

While Bruno and Shmuel form the heart of the story, Boyne populates the narrative with all manner of interesting characters, many of whom seem strange to the young boy who acts as our guide. From aloof Father and unhappy Mother, to Kurt, the young soldier with an evil temper, a questionable background and a soft spot for Bruno’s sister and mother, and Pavel, the vegetable-cutter and waiter who claims to have been a doctor in a former life, all of these characters are instantly recognisable stereotypes who nevertheless pop off the page, fully-formed and full of life. Even the (aptly-misheard) Fury and his beautiful blonde companion seem like interesting people in the eyes of Bruno.

For the book’s tenth anniversary, Doubleday have produced a beautifully-packaged “Deluxe Illustrated Edition”, with art by the wonderful Oliver Jeffers. As a fan of Jeffers’ work (one of the many joyful discoveries I have made in fatherhood), he seemed like a strange choice to illustrate such a dark and ultimately horrific novel. But having re-read the book and admired Jeffers’ artwork, I’m now convinced that he was the right – perhaps the only – choice. His simplistic drawings, filled with childlike beauty, match the childlike narrative perfectly, though often showing us proceedings from a more adult, and sometimes very shocking, perspective.

From its light-hearted opening line to its inevitable and horrific end, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a gripping and essential take on one of humanity’s darkest moments. Boyne pulls no punches, despite the child’s-eye view that he uses to tell much of the story, and the reader comes away from the experience a changed – and extremely damp-eyed – person. While it is ostensibly a book aimed at children (I can’t wait until my own child is old enough to read it with me), this is a book that deserves to be read by everyone, an important story that – especially in these dark times where many seem to be forgetting the lessons of the past – is perfectly-pitched to give our children an early glimpse of the horrors inflicted on the world by Nazi Germany. A tough read (especially when you know what’s coming), The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas remains one of the best books I’ve ever read, and this tenth anniversary edition marks both John Boyne and Oliver Jeffers as national treasures, men in whose hands the education and edification of our children are safe. If you haven’t read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I would urge you to do so. If you have, don’t you think it’s about time for a revisit?

JAKOB’S COLOURS by Lindsay Hawdon

JakobsColours JAKOB’S COLOURS

Lindsay Hawdon (lhawdon.co.uk)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£14.99

Jakob is barely eight-years old, and he is running for his life, searching for shelter in a world that has turned against him. It is 1944, and Jakob is a half-gypsy, the oldest child of a Romany father and an English mother, living in German-occupied Europe. High on Hitler’s list of undesirables, Jakob’s gypsy heritage has condemned him to a less-than-human existence that can only end in one way if he stays where he is. So, he must reach Switzerland before he is found, but what chance does an eight-year-old child have against the might of the German army?

Just when you thought you knew about all the atrocities carried out during the Second World War, something else gets unearthed, or someone comes along to examine something in more detail, and uncovers fresh horror and pain. Based on the Romany Holocaust, Lindsay Hawdon’s novel is all the more intense for showing the horror through the eyes of an eight-year-old boy whose survival is, by no means, guaranteed.

Concentrating on the story of Jakob as he tries to evade capture, Hawdon uses flashbacks to supplement this young boy’s story, to show us where he came from, in every sense of the phrase. Flashbacks to the previous year show us Jakob on the run with his mother, brother and sister, as they try to find Jakob’s father, from whom they were separated during a pogrom on the town in which they had settled. During other flashbacks, we find the family all together though, horrifically, they’re wedged into railway cattle cars on their way to God knows what fate. Others show us the childhood of Jakob’s mother, the madness that drove her to the asylum where she met and fell in love with Jakob’s father, a man obsessed with collecting colours, a passion that he passed on to his eldest son.

In the main narrative, Jakob finds himself being helped by an old man named Marcus. Marcus has secret compartments under his stairs that he uses to hide people from the Nazis. He takes Jakob to his home and hides him in the smallest of these compartments, where he lives for months, his only companionship the two Jews in the neighbouring cubbies, and his daily trip outside to get fed and use the toilet. As the story progresses, a plan is hatched, and Jakob begins to receive more food to strengthen him for a run to the Swiss border. In his innocence, much of what is happening passes over Jakob’s head, though there are clues that point the reader to a more realistic conclusion.

There is much beauty between the covers of this stunning novel: the relationship between Jakob and his mother; the stories she tells; and the love that shines from the page not only between Jakob and his family members, but also between Jakob and the man who will become his saviour, Marcus. This beauty is balanced by moments of sheer horror that will leave the reader in tears – what lies at the end of that train journey; Jakob’s realisation as he leaves his cupboard under Marcus’ stairs for the last time. These and other scenes are designed to rip the heart from your chest and wring it dry; the contrast with the beauty, with the wonderful colours that infuse the whole story, makes the horror all the more stark.

Hawdon’s characterisation is masterful, to say the least. In a few short words, she can create a living, breathing human being out of thin air: Jakob and his family; the two men in the cupboards next to Jakob, each with their own stories to tell, their own pain-filled routes to these small spaces of solace and shelter; the German soldier who haunts Jakob’s dreams, one of the most evil characters you’re likely to encounter in fiction, who remains unnamed, and whose conscience makes his violence even more terrifying.

As well as Jakob’s story, this is the story of the Romany people, and the trials they faced during Hitler’s reign. As we learn about the history of Jakob’s family, it becomes clear that little has changed for the gypsy people in the thirty years or so that the novel spans: the pogroms and discrimination are nothing new, though the final outcome may have changed. What Thomas Keneally did for the Jews in Schindler’s Ark, so Lindsay Hawdon does for the Romany in Jakob’s Colours. There are obvious parallels between the two works, but what makes them so similar is the simplicity of their stories, the horror they evoke, and the sympathy that the author has for their subject. Schindler’s Ark won Keneally the Booker Prize; I’ll be very surprised if Jakob’s Colours doesn’t receive similar accolades in the coming year.

Beautiful and horrific, Jakob’s Colours is an intense and gripping examination of one person’s experiences during the Second World War, written in a way that examines how an entire race of people suffered during that war. Lindsay Hawdon’s writing is beautiful, her characterisation pitch perfect, her ability to terrify and sicken eclipsed only by her ability to make us smile, to appeal to our maternal or paternal instincts for this small boy on his own. Like any book whose subject is genocide, it is difficult to come away from Jakob’s Colours feeling that you’ve enjoyed yourself, but it is an important book, a story that is still very relevant seventy years after its setting; this is a book that demands an audience and I can guarantee that you will not come away disappointed.

TRIESTE by Daša Drndić

untitled TRIESTE

Daša Drndić

Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac

Maclehose Press (maclehosepress.com)

£20.00

BEHIND EVERY NAME THERE IS A STORY

These words, on an otherwise blank page, some 140 pages into Daša Drndić’s Trieste, and the forty-four pages that follow which contain the names of “about 9000 Jews who were deported from Italy or killed in Italy in the countries Italy occupied between 1943 and 1945” form the breath-taking core of this remarkable book. Trieste, Drndić’s first novel to be translated into English, ostensibly tells the story of the elderly Haya Tedeschi as she waits for the son she has not seen in sixty-two years.

Tedeschi, a native of the town of Gorizia, a small town at the eastern extremity of Italy, sits in a rocking chair, sorting through a red basket that contains her entire life. As we spend time with the old lady, we come to learn of Gorizia’s colourful past – its location means that it changed hands several times during Haya’s lifetime – and of the history of her family, a family of Catholicised Jews trying to survive through turbulent times. This history, complete with photographs and document snippets, comes in the form of a disorganised narrative that might be prompted by an old lady taking documents from a basket, glancing through them, then providing her own summary. In some cases, the timeline is clear – the events leading up to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, for example, the catalyst for the First World War – while in others, we will see a single character’s story through to death, or that point at which they pass out of Haya’s ken, before jumping back and picking up the main thread where it left off.

As the story progresses, we learn that Haya’s son, stolen from her in 1945, was fathered by an SS officer serving at the San Sabba camp on the outskirts of nearby Trieste. The child was stolen and placed in one of Himmler’s Lebensborn homes, which were set up to maintain the purity of the Aryan race. The child’s father was none other than Kurt Franz, a brutal man who spent time as a sub-commander of the Treblinka camp before being transferred to Trieste and who counted amongst his hobbies a form of target practice that replaced the traditional clay pigeon with live infants hurled into the air by his comrades.

Starting slow, and taking us back to the very start of the Twentieth Century, the story of Haya and her family and the region in which she has spent the vast majority of her life, lulls us into a false sense of security before knocking us off our feet with detailed descriptions of the atrocities committed by Kurt Franz and the other members of Aktion T4 who ended the war in Trieste. Cleverly blurring the line between fact and fiction, Drndić pulls no punches, and leaves the reader slightly shell-shocked by the time the book comes to a close.

Using witness narratives, both real and imagined (‘“How old are you?” “I’m dead.”’), from both victims and perpetrators, as well as brief biographies of the key SS men involved, and a number of other narrative tricks and tics, Drndić builds a story that is all the more shocking for being true. This reader tends to be somewhat jaded after almost thirty years of reading crime and horror fiction, but nothing can prepare you for the sheer onslaught of horror in this catalogue of atrocities.

Two Germans stood there listening to what was going on. At the end they’d say Alles schläft – They’re all asleep. Then we would open the door. The bodies fell out like potatoes. Bloody, covered with urine and shit. People bled from their ears and noses. It was dark inside the chamber. People would jump over one another to catch some air. They’d try to break down the door. The stronger ones would trample the children and the weak. Some people were unrecognisable. There were crushed children’s skulls…

Odd phrasings make for disturbing images, as in this description of the crematorium at San Sabba:

The ovens are inaugurated on 4 April, 1944, with a celebratory test run incinerating seventy bodies of hostages killed at the Villa Opicina shooting range the day before.

Or the matter-of-fact descriptions of the men who ran these camps:

Josef Hirtreiter, S.S.-Scharführer…Low I.Q….Hadamer 1940 (washes dishes); Sobibor and Treblinka 1942-43. Speciality: killing one- and two-year-old children: when transports are being unloaded, grabs children by the legs and smashes them against a freight car.

As the story nears its end, and we meet Haya’s son, we discover that his abduction is far from an isolated incident. As with the experiences of those in the camps, the stories of these young children (now men and women in their sixties and seventies) who have no idea who they are, or where they came from, are told in their own voices (one notable voice here is that of Anni-Frid Lyngstad: “I was a singer in ABBA. The brunette.”).

Through it all, Drndić threads a number of themes: the importance of family, from the family tree of the Tedeschi family, as far back as Haya is able to trace it, through the witness accounts which mention, on more than one occasion, sending loved ones to their death, or shaving the heads or extracting the teeth of fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, grandparents before their final trip to the gas chambers, and on to the victims of the Lebensborn program, and the family ties that bind them, ultimately, to men and women who are infamous for being monsters. There is also the notion that what happened in those places was only possible because of the veil of secrecy that surrounded them. Each instance of the word secret, or secrecy, or whatever other variation, appears in the text in italics, emphasising the fact that these were secrets that should have been questioned and exposed much earlier, and a warning for future generations not to make the same mistake. And, of course, the tenet that behind every name there is a story. Drndić tells some of these stories here, as have many others in the past – Tom Keneally, Primo Levi, Chil Rajchman, to name but a few – but there are still more names, and more stories than there is time, or willingness, to tell.

Trieste feels like a very personal book for Drndić, and one can’t help but wonder if this anger is hers, disguised as the anger of a man who has never existed. Where blame is warranted, she points the finger of her avatar, from Arnold Schwarzenegger (seen as an apologist) to the entire Catholic Church. There is also credit where it is due, most notably for the sons of Hans Frank, and the daughter of Amon Göth (famously portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List).

This is a difficult book to read, as horror builds upon horror until the reader feels numb, but it is an important novel, and one that deserves a wide readership. In the end, Trieste is more documentary than fiction. It’s a beautifully-written work (despite the often-horrific subject matter) and appears in a wonderful translation from the ever-reliable Maclehose Press. I certainly won’t claim to have enjoyed the experience, but it’s one I’m glad I had, and one that will stay with me for a long time. I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

THE AUSCHWITZ VIOLIN by Maria Ãngels Anglada

THE AUSCHWITZ VIOLIN - Maria Angels Anglada THE AUSCHWITZ VIOLIN

Maria Ãngels Anglada

Translated by Martha Tennent

Corsair/Constable & Robinson (www.constablerobinson.com)

£9.99

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 by Hans Keilson

COMEDY IN A MINOR KEY

Hans Keilson

Translated by Damion Searls (www.damionsearls.com)

Hesperus Press (www.hesperuspress.com)

£9.99

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.

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