Ros Collins, Rosa: Memories with licence (Author’s response)

Book cover

Last October, I reviewed a book by Ros Collins titled Rosa: Memories with licence. As the title suggests, this book is not quite memoir, but neither is it really fiction. My post generated quite some discussion from commenters, which resulted in my saying “Maybe Ros will comment here and answer the questions”. Unfortunately, just as her book was launched, Ros had a sudden hip fracture, resulting in hospitalisation. Now, getting back to normal, she has contacted me saying she’d love to respond to the comments, but that it was long. I suggested making it a separate post. I do hope those commenters see it, and read what she has to say.

First, though, for those interested, she writes that she is well into “a new book based on [her late husband] Alan’s 19th century ancestors. It will be creative non-fiction.” Love it! And now …

Author with her bookFrom Ros Collins …

Some background

My first book, Solly’s girl (2015) was as factually accurate as I was able to research. It was intended to complement my husband Alan’s memoir Alva’s boy (2008). Even before that, he had used his terrible childhood experiences in autobiographical fiction, namely The boys from Bondi which is now part 1 of his trilogy, A promised land? (2001). The eminent critic Fay Zwicky called that ‘a psalm to life’.  It seemed an essential task for me to complete the history of our two families.

Rosa developed out of a number of short stories which undoubtedly accounts for the third person-first person dichotomy. My publisher Louis de Vries and editor Anna Blay at Hybrid, dealt with the anomalies with enormous patience. Three chapters, “Jellied eels”, “Sheyn Meydl” and “Rimonim” were part of my work for an online course in short story writing that I undertook in 2017. By the time I’d read William Trevor, Raymond Carver, Hemingway and many other masters of the genre, I knew it was not for me.

However, ‘Creative non-fiction’ had great appeal. “Ultimately, the primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter, but to shape it in a way that reads like fiction.” (Gutkind, Lee. The best creative nonfiction, Vol. 1). I embarked on Rosa with enthusiasm and a great desire to entertain. Like Alan, I also believe in the  power of humour and only wish I had greater skills.

Response to the comments

 ‘… worn out with fictionalised Australian Jewish memoirs…’  was one I could easily relate to. I was director of Makor Jewish Community Library (now the Lamm Jewish Library of Australia). One of my proudest achievements was to establish the ‘Write your Story’ program whereby I hoped the community ‘would be able to write its own history’. To date more than 150 memoirs have been published. I believe the comprise the largest such series in the world. Inevitably, as Melbourne has so many Holocaust survivor families, the tragedy of the Shoah features prominently. It is however a multicultural series: memoirs have been written about Jewish life in Egypt, Argentina, England – and Australia.

So as far as Australian Jewish literature is concerned, it seems to be overwhelmingly preoccupied with Holocaust memoir or peeks into the exotic world of heavy duty orthodoxy. Sephardi or Spanish-Jewish history has also afforded subjects for writers: People of the book comes to mind.  But Anglo-Australian-Jewish writing is very limited. One of your commentators mentioned Judah Waten. He mentored Alan and urged him to write his first book of short stories, Troubles (1983), which was highly commended in the Alan Marshall awards.  Waten, Morris Lurie, Serge Liberman, et al, born here or not, all write out of the European tradition; the migrant/survivor experience is very much to the fore. Alan’s ancestors arrived either on a convict transport or later as free settlers in the 1800s and Rosa (me of course) is British, a ‘ten-pound Pom’ who in the 1950s wore white gloves to visit the ‘city’. Anglos. And this difference makes for confusion. It’s unlikely that your readers are familiar with communal conflicts but I’ll just open the subject by pointing out that the Jewish Anglo community in Australia was ‘more British than the British’. For many of them the mother country was still considered ‘home’, and ‘the Empire’ really mattered! The ‘reffos’ – the migrants – were often disparaged, even despised. To get a picture, don’t bother with the history books, read Alan, much more digestible and he makes the reader laugh as well as cry.

Your readers mention the Americans and British including towering figures such as Roth and Jacobson, both of whom are favourites of mine. They would doubtless be puzzled by the fact that many local Jews couldn’t warm to Jacobson’s The Finkler question [see my review] which I greatly admire. I imagine it’s the British connection. I understand how difficult it is for the mythical ‘general reader’ to come to grips with Jewish lit in all its complex variety. It helps to remember the profoundly different histories. Australian, American and British Jews are far from being all of a piece. Howard Jacobson for example has been exasperated by critics who have called him ‘the British Phillip Roth’; he retorts that Jane Austen is a far greater influence. Australian reviewers have found shades of Dickens in Alan’s work.

I’d like to  mention some helpful titles which have impressed me, authors who have made me think about identity and heritage, my place ‘down here at the bottom of the world’ as I said in 1957.

On being Jewish by Rabbi Julia Neuberger is straightforward, accessible and sensible. Baroness Neuberger, a member of the House of Lords, is a Reform rabbi (the first woman to head her own congregation in Britain), a tireless worker for social justice and progressive values. She’s younger than me but we share some knowledge of Anglo-Jewish life in the 1950s. Her ancestry is German-Jewish; her ‘British-ness’ is rather like my own.

Jews and words by the eminent Israeli writer Amos Oz and his daughter, historian Fania Oz-Salzberger, is a wonderful ‘blend of storytelling and scholarship, conversation and argument’; it also includes some great jokes.  What I like so much about this book is the way the authors introduce themselves:  At this early stage we need to say loud and clear what kind of Jews we are.  Both of us are secular Jewish Israelis. And then this, As Jewish atheists, we take religion to be a great human invention. ‘Jewish atheists’ must be very confusing for some  readers!  

Closer to home is Australian genesis: Jewish convicts and settlers 1788-1850 (1974) by J. S.  Levi and G. Bergman. It is eminently readable and beautifully illustrated. It should never have been allowed to go out of print but most libraries will have a copy. Rabbi John Levi is of ‘Anglo’ heritage and is a most sensitive and compassionate scholar. His reference book, These are the names: Jewish lives in Australia 1788-1850 (2013) is an invaluable guide to the lives of the more than 1600 Jews who came to Australia in that early period. It has been fascinating for me to read the transcript of the trial at the Old Bailey of ‘our’ 17-year old convict. He became a respectable citizen in Goulburn and the local ‘Hebrew congregation’ would meet in his store for ‘champagne suppers’ to celebrate Royal Family events back in the mother country.

An essential guide to Australian-Jewish literature is Serge Liberman’s monumental Bibliography of Australian Judaica (2011).

Did I have a ‘plan’?  Was it all ‘true’?  Did I want to protect others?  No, yes and no. I wrote Rosa because I wanted to. Isn’t that how most writers operate? The events I’ve dramatized are true but obviously I am unable to replicate conversations that took place in the past. ‘Licence’ was a word suggested to me by my kind mentor Karenlee Thompson who has written so movingly about bush fires in Flame Tip [see my review].  For example, I know my maternal grandfather went AWOL from the army of Czar Alexander and I’m guessing he was forcibly conscripted like so many other little Jewish boys at the age of 12 and couldn’t contemplate another 25 years of army life. I know he received letters from his sister in Kiev until in 1941 they suddenly ceased, and I’m assuming my great-aunt perished with 34,000 others in the massacre at the ravine of Babi Yar. And, as I write in the book, I have no wish ever to set foot in Eastern Europe. Israel is another very different matter.

Sue, you conclude your review with a most perceptive paragraph:  Rosa, then, is a warm-hearted, open-minded “memoir” written by an Anglo-Australian Jewish woman for whom being Jewish, as for many I believe, is as much, if not more, about history and heritage as god and religion. In this book, Collins interrogates her family’s past, and her late husband’s story, in order to come to a better understanding of herself, and of what she would like to pass on to the next generation. This book is testament to that soul-searching, and makes good reading for anyone interested in the life-long business of forming identity, Jewish or otherwise.

I never set out to be an apologist for my heritage and it has been a surprise to learn that so many readers have found Rosa ‘enlightening’, an opportunity to see the variety in my community. The misconceptions are often funny but also appalling at a time when intolerance and racism are on the rise in this ‘lucky country’.  So I shall end here with two stories about electricians:

My electrician who is an intelligent much-travelled man asked me: Won’t you get into trouble with your rabbi for not wearing a wig? He was amazed that I laughed and even more surprised to learn that rabbis really have little authority – they’re teachers – and although I seldom attend a service I cannot be disenfranchised.

My son’s electrician had a much more sinister question. Pointing to the mezuzah on the doorpost of my son’s house he asked:  It’s full of blood, isn’t it?  My son, completely secular, Vietnam vet, non-kosher, a painter – and a proud Jew – replied:  Of  course it isn’t, there’s little piece of paper inside with a prayer and blessing written on it; I’ll take it down and show you. But the electrician was horrified:  Ooh no, don’t do that, we’d better not touch.

And that, Sue, is how it all starts with rubbish like that, words that lead to swastika flags in Beulah and book burning …

If in Rosa I can open some windows I think it’s a good thing.

And so do I. Thanks very much Ros for appearing out of the blue with this warm, open and informative response to the comments on my post. I look forward to seeing your next book!

Ros Collins, Rosa: Memories with licence (#BookReview)

Book coverMemoirs are tricky things. There are readers who love them, readers who hate them, and readers like wishy-washy me who sit in the middle. I sit in the middle because, for a start, I don’t like to say “never” when it comes to reading. I sit in the middle because I couldn’t cope with a steady diet of memoirs, particularly those how-I-got-over-my-[whatever trauma or challenge it was], which is certainly not to say that I don’t admire those memoirists or don’t enjoy some of their fare. And, I sit in the middle because I don’t like formula, because I like books that try to tackle their subject or their form a little differently. So, the memoirs I mostly read are those which play with form or whose subject matter offers something different. Ros Collins’ memoir, Rosa: Memories with licence, does both of these.

First, the subject-matter. Rosa deals with, as the book description says, “Anglo-Australian Jews [who are] often overlooked in fiction and memoir.” Having known many Anglo-Australian Jews through my life, I was interested to read Collins’ discussion of her family’s life, as a contrast to those more directly Holocaust-influenced lives of European Jews we’ve all read about. It’s not easy being Jewish, I believe, regardless of personal or family history, so I was interested to read this story.

Then there’s the form. The subtitle, “memories with licence”, suggests that this is not going to be your usual memoir. For a start, it is told third person about a person called Rosa, which is the name given to the author Ros by “two elderly men from Southern Europe” whom she met on a recent Anzac Day Eve. She goes on to say, in her Introduction, that it is this “Rosa who wanders through the following stories, sometimes fictionally, sometimes autobiographically”, though I hazard to guess it is mostly autobiographical – just told one voice removed! Near the end of the introduction, she says that:

Rosa is much more personal [than her previous family history book, Solly’s girl] – and freely written – and I have taken liberties with the truth. Memoir with a little fiction, or fiction with a little history? It’s hard to say. Memories with licence.

The book has been classified on its back cover as Memoir. And that is how I have read it, as it reads true.

So, why tell it this way? Collins says she wishes “to entertain”. Her aim is not to delve into world history, cataclysmic events, or, even, dystopian futures. She wants, instead to shine a light on lives that may not be well known to many Australians, on Anglo-Australian Jewish lives. Taking a third person voice enables her to tell her story a little more objectively, to comment on what people, in particular Rosa, were, or may have been, thinking and feeling. Third person also enables her to get out of the main subject’s voice and head. It enables her to suggest what others might be thinking, such as Rabbi Szymanowicz:

Rabbi Szymanowicz stopped surreptitiously searching the room for younger people with whom he might more profitably connect, and looked at her. Seldom, if ever, had he met an elderly congregant quite like her; for an eighty-something-year-old Rosa did not come across as a sweetly gentle Miss Marple – more likely to be opinionated and argumentative.

This sort of statement could not be made in the same way in a traditional memoir. A traditional memoirist can not so directly get into the head of another character. A traditional memoirist can only suppose what another character might think (unless they are quoting documented facts from, say, letters). Taking this third person approach gives Collins more licence. She can, for example, “guess” about the relationship between her two grandmothers, two women who were not happy because they lost significant supports, when Rosa’s parents married.

All this could be disconcerting to some readers, but Collins has been honest from the start about what she is doing. Ultimately, the important thing is whether the book rings true and I believe it does. Rosa’s character – her humanity, her sense of her own flaws, her uncertainties, as well as her pride in her achievements – shines through.

Another way in which the book departs from traditional memoir is in its lack of linearity. While there is an overall movement from past to present, Rosa is not told chronologically. Instead, each chapter or “story” takes up a theme through which the story of English-born Rosa (Ros) and Australian-born Al (Ros’s husband Alan) is told. Chapter 4, “Jellied eels”, for example, explores food, Jewish culture, and Rosa’s navigation of it all. Collins explains how, as a child, Rosa had been told what she could and couldn’t eat, but not told why. Her mother expected her to “just accept the traditions” but of course this is not the way to hand down traditions, not, certainly, “to a difficult daughter – full of unnecessary questions”!

Collins also tackles, gently and without polemics, what Israel means (or, might mean) for Anglo-Australian Jews. For those of us who find Israel and the politics of the region highly problematic, it’s useful – though not necessarily convincing – to be reminded that in Israel, as Rosa quotes Golda Meir saying, “nobody has to get up in the morning and worry about what his neighbours think of him. Being a Jew is no problem here.”

Rosa, then, is a warm-hearted, open-minded “memoir” written by an Anglo-Australian Jewish woman for whom being Jewish, as for many I believe, is as much, if not more, about history and heritage as god and religion. In this book, Collins interrogates her family’s past, and her late husband’s story, in order to come to a better understanding of herself, and of what she would like to pass on to the next generation. This book is testament to that soul-searching, and makes good reading for anyone interested in the life-long business of forming identity, Jewish or otherwise.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeRos Collins
Rosa: Memories with licence
Ormond: Hybrid Publishers, 2019
ISBN: 9781925736113

Sara Dowse, As the lonely fly (#BookReview)

Sara Dowse, As the lonely blySome books grow out of their author’s desire to engage the reader in an issue they feel passionate about, such as Jane Rawson on climate change in A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (my review) and Charlotte Wood on the scapegoating of women in The natural way of things (my review). Sara Dowse’s latest book, As the lonely fly, falls into this category, but for Dowse the issue is the Israel-Palestine problem, the “rightness” or otherwise of establishing a Jewish state. This doesn’t mean, however, that books so inspired are boringly earnest or stridently polemical. It’s a risk, of course, but in the hands of good writers, like the three mentioned here, issues are turned into stories that engage us, while simultaneously raising our consciousness.

Unlike Rawson and Wood’s more dystopian novels, Dowse uses historical fiction, with a hint of mystery/thriller, to explore her ideas.  The novel is set in the first half of the twentieth century, and follows the lives of two Russian-Jewish sisters, Clara and Manya, and their niece, Zipporah. We start, theoretically at least, with Clara (who changes her name to Chava when she arrives in Palestine), but are immediately introduced to her younger sister Manya (who had migrated to the US with their parents and who becomes Marion).  Niece Zipporah, the committed Zionist who followed Clara to Palestine, opens Part Two.

The story is divided into 6 parts in fact, the first labelled “Clara begets Chava 1922-1925” and the last “Tikkun? 1967” (“tikkun” being, significantly, a Hebrew word for “fixing/rectification”). The narrative has an overall forwards momentum, but the chronology is not linear and the perspectives change. Following all this requires an alert reader, but it enables Dowse to fill in backstories at the relevant moment (such as Clara’s experience of the 1905 Odessa uprising) and to link various characters and ideas. Her goal is to explore the difficult situation confronting Eastern European Jews in the early 20th century and the concomitant creation of Israel. In so doing, Dowse raises bigger questions about idealism and justice, and exposes the challenges of migration, particularly of migration that is politically charged.

While Part One is labelled 1922-1925, the first chapter is headed “Marion 1967”, ensuring an important, comparative, role for the American experience. However, the bulk of this part tells of socialist Clara/Chava’s early days working to create a new Jewish state. It’s not long before the hard-working Chava starts to question what they are doing, to see the difference between the political Zionism of Herzl and the cultural (or spiritual) one of Ahad Ha’am. She starts to agree with Ha’am, as she writes to Marion,

that there shouldn’t even be a state like the one Herzl advocated, but a centre in Palestine where Jews reconnect with our culture and from there would disseminate it through the Diaspora. That the land wasn’t empty as Herzl had us believe, that it would be difficult to find land that wasn’t already cultivated, and the Arabs wouldn’t be overjoyed about the space we’d taken up in what happened to be in their land too. Or ecstatic about losing their jobs. The Marxist in me is increasingly uneasy about this … (Pt 2, Ch. 11, Uncorrected proof copy)

If you are an Australian, this idea of taking up space that’s not empty will resonate, as I’m sure Dowse intends it to do!

… too much head …

Eventually Chava finds occupying this already occupied land too difficult and, after supporting an Arab uprising, willingly returns to Russia where, unfortunately, she finds anti-semitism on the rise. Meanwhile, Zipporah provides a foil to Chava, retaining her commitment to the Zionist ideal, albeit seeing the trauma that can be caused by commitment to a political idea. The story of her student, Talli, provides this insight. Dowse, in other words, provides no easy answers, but forces us to face, through stories of real human beings with whom we fully engage, the complexity of the situation.

Chava meets in Jerusalem, a cobbler, Ha-Kohen, a spiritual rather than a political Hebrew man. He says to her:

You and your chaverim, those pals of yours, can you really believe all those things you read? It’s all from the head. And the source of all evil on this earth is too much head, my dear, and not enough heart. (Pt 2, Ch. 10, Uncorrected proof copy)

A little more empathy, in other words, is what is needed.

As the lonely fly could be described as a family saga. There are many characters besides the three women I’ve introduced here – including another sister (Zipporah’s mother) and her family, various friends and colleagues, and a love interest or two – and the novel spans six decades from 1905 to 1967. There’s also a thriller element including some espionage, and a nod to the mystery genre too. What is wrong with Talli, and what does happen to Clara? Through these Dowse explores her themes while involving us in real lives – via lovely domestic details of rooms, meals and close relationships, and vivid descriptions of place. By the end of the novel I was deeply engaged with her characters and their dilemmas, whether or not I agreed with all their decisions.

… the passion for justice …

Manya/Marion is a somewhat more shadowy character than Clara and Zipporah, and yet, as the one who migrated to America, the land of the free, she provides an important counterbalance to the lives of the other two. On the surface, her ambition to be an actor, and her oh so western focus on colouring her hair, on “the showering, the creaming, the makeup’, are as “exasperating” to us as they are to Zipporah, but she is the character who opens and closes the novel, so we need to heed her. Her idealistic, bookish husband, Sidney, dies a very American death, and leaves her with two young sons. It provides a counterpoint to the high drama that was occurring in Israel.

In the loneliness of her later years, she finds herself still struggling to understand him, but she comes to see that both his and Clara’s idealism was really “a passion for justice”. In the book’s final chapter, she and Zipporah, whom she visits in Israel, attend a Hebrew performance of a favourite play of hers, O’Neill’s The iceman cometh. Now, I don’t know this play – besides knowing of its existence – but I presumed Dowse had chosen it for a reason, so I checked Wikipedia. It told me that the play’s main themes are the self-deceptions, the pipe-dreams – the lies, in other words – that we tell ourselves to keep going. The play references, apparently, political ideals such as anarchism and socialism. Certainly, Clara discovers her socialist ideals being undermined when the factory managers in Soviet-era Moscow start employing capitalist techniques to increase production. However, I’m sure Dowse intends us to read O’Neill’s theme in terms of how we behave today – in relation to Israel/Palestine and to all the other injustices that we see around us, but try to justify away.

The past is not, in fact, the burden we thought, says Zipporah to Marion. It’s the future we need to worry about. Like all good ideas novelists, Dowse has not bombarded us with answers but, instead, has intelligently and compassionately given us plenty to think about.

aww2017 badgeSara Dowse
As the lonely fly
For Pity Sake Publishing, 2017
327pp. (Uncorrected proof edition)
ISBN: 9780994448576

To be published: June 2017

(Advanced review copy courtesy For Pity Sake Publishing)

Susan Varga, Heddy and me (Review)

Susan Varga, Heddy and me Book cover

Penguin edition

Susan Varga’s biography-cum-memoir, Heddy and me, was first published back in 1994, so why am I reading it now? By a rather circuitous route, as it happens. Lesley Lebkowicz, whose The Petrov poems I’ve reviewed, read my post on Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister, sister, and suggested to Susan Varga that she might like to send me her book to review. Varga apparently liked the idea and consequently I received an email from her personal assistant offering it to me. I had heard of it, and am interested in the subject matter, so I said yes. That was, embarrassingly, over four months ago, for which I apologise, but eventually its time came and here, finally, is my review.

I’ll start with the judges’ comment when they chose the book to win the 1994 Christina Stead Award for Biography, Autobiography or Memoir*. They described it as “the front rank of autobiographical writing in this country”. That’s a big call but, having read it, I agree, because it is an engrossing book which intelligently negotiates two usually opposing forms, biography and autobiography/memoir. In it, Varga tells the story of her Hungarian Jewish mother Heddy – her life in Hungary, her experience of World War 2, and her subsequent emigration with her extended family to Australia. But, in telling this story, Varga, as the title conveys, also tells her own. She was born, mid-war, in 1943 and was just 5 when the family migrated. Hers was a complicated growing up in which she struggled to find self. She finally realised, late in her research, that she straddles two generations: the first (those who migrated) and the second (the children of those migrants).

Now, I can see why Lebkowicz thought I might be interested in this book, because both books involve a daughter not only telling the Holocaust-survival-and-migration story of a mother, but also working through her understanding of and relationship with that mother. Like Blay after her, Varga captured much of her mother’s story via tape recorder:

… the room itself is imposing, with its long oak table and chairs covered in embossed velvet. Imposing but not unfriendly, which is very much Mother’s style.

I switch on the tape-recorder. She talks, I listen. She [unlike Blay’s mother] doesn’t need much prompting; she’s telling me her life story, which she knows will be raw material for a book. In the past when people have said to her, ‘Heddy, you should tell your life story,’ she has said, ‘I’m waiting for Susan.’

I’ve told her it won’t be her life story, not properly. It will be filtered through my reactions and thoughts, my second generation eyes.

And Varga’s eyes are complicated, sometimes testy ones, as she strives to comprehend her strong-willed mother. So, like Blay’s book, Heddy and me is an amalgam of biography and autobiography, thereby neatly sidestepping David Marr’s injunction for biographers to get out of their story! Like Blay’s book, too, Heddy and me is a story of survival – of a peculiar combination of luck, resourcefulness and judgment – and it’s a story of the lasting impacts of the war. For both families, one of those impacts is an ongoing sense of fear:

… the fear of impermanence, the readiness to flee, takes the form, among others, of a deep conservatism running through the older generation, as if any change at all could result in their lives being uprooted again. They are over-protective, still prone to buy their children a diamond, something portable, just in case.

And we children feel a pervasive fear that we do not know how to express. Impermanence and insecurity lurk in the shadows behind this all-Australian red-brick security.

I found this analysis, this explanation of conservatism, enlightening – and helpful.

However, despite similarities with Blay’s book, Varga’s is different. For a start there are the obvious departures. Varga’s family is Hungarian to Blay’s Polish one, and Varga’s mother was married with a young child when the war started while Blay’s mother was still a teenager. Moreover, Varga’s mother managed to avoid, through various subterfuges, being sent to a concentration camp. She didn’t suffer the ghetto and concentration camp terrors and depredations of Blay’s mother, but Heddy and her colourful mother Kató, whose story is also told here, did suffer, including being raped multiple times by their Russian liberators. There are deeper differences too, speaking to the different psychologies of the two families, their individual wartime experiences, and how these subsequently played out in their post-war lives. And there’s the structure. Varga interweaves her own story and her reactions to her mother’s story within the one narrative flow, while Blay carefully differentiates her voice from her mother’s and aunt’s.

A particularly fascinating part of Varga’s book is the picture she paints of Hungarian society before, during and after the war. I learnt a lot, for example, about Budapest – its vibrant pre-war culture and life, albeit a life that, for its Jewish inhabitants, had its paradoxes. They lived, writes Varga, an outwardly normal life, “clinging to continuity while awaiting upheaval”. Varga chronicles the trajectory of anti-Semitism, from pre-war to the out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire situation in which Hungary’s Jews found themselves post-war, when Nazism was replaced by Communism. Indeed, having survived the war, Heddy, Kató and family were prepared to stay in Budapest until it became clear to Heddy “that the noose was tightening again, like Hitler, except then it was against the Jews, now against everyone.” So, Heddy, ever attuned it seems to the political nuances around her, worked on her family until they agreed to move to “the New World”. Later, as part of research for her book, Varga returns to Hungary with her mother, and becomes aware of the increasing (or, really, continuing) anti-Semitism:

As I begin to grasp the subtleties of political life in the post-Communist world, I find it awful that the Jews should once again need friends and protectors, I think of 1943, when Hungary’s Jews still thought themselves safe because Kállay, or some other prominent politician, was their friend.

Once again, I am astonished, though I suppose by now I shouldn’t be, at how deeply anti-Semitism seems to run, particularly in Europe.

And here, I’m going to insert some personal connections with Varga’s story. I mentioned in my review of Sister, sister that I’d spent some time in my Sydney youth with Jewish people – eastern European Jews – who were business friends of my father’s. Blay’s and now Varga’s books consequently ring true for me, Varga’s particularly, because her parents did exactly what many of these people did – they set up business in the rag trade, and then handbags. I still have some handbags to prove it! But, my connections with Varga are more than this, because I went to the same high school she did, albeit a decade later. Unfortunately, Varga’s experience was not as positive as mine, partly due to her increasing sense of disconnection with her family and partly to the fact that by my time in the mid-to-late 1960s society was becoming less rigid (even in strict government girls’ schools). It was at that school that my understanding of civil rights – particularly, then, relating to racism and anti-Semitism – was honed. This is rather ironic given Varga found it “a school of endless strictures and platitudes”.

Anyhow, enough about me, and back to the book. Heddy and me was, I suspect, groundbreaking when it was first published, not so much for its portrayal of personal experience of the Holocaust, because such stories started appearing soon after the war, but for Varga’s intensely personal exploration of women’s experience and identity across three generations, before, during and after the war. Since then, similar stories have been written – Blay’s, for example, and another I’ve reviewed, Halina Rubin’s Journeys with my mother. However, these later books don’t minimise the power of Heddy and me, which not only illuminates the personal and familial costs of the Holocaust, but also provides an historical perspective on that mysterious thing we call human behaviour. This book deserves a continued life.

AWW Logo 2016Susan Varga
Heddy and me
Abbotsford: Bruce Sims Books, 2000 (2nd ed.; Orig. ed. Penguin, 1994)
ISBN: 9780957780033

(Source: Susan Varga)

* Unfortunately FAW’s awards website only goes back to 1999. This comment is on the front cover of my edition, and is credited to “Christina Stead Award”.

Anna Rosner Blay, Sister, sister (Review)

BlaySisterHaleSome of the most vivid memories of my Sydney-based late teens and early twenties relate to spending time with Jewish people, business friends of my father. We went to parties in their homes, to weddings and bar mitzvahs. These were always happy, family-oriented occasions. I had crushes on the sons. I knew that most of these people had come to Australia after the war, had suffered during the war, many in concentration camps, but I knew little more than that. The war was back then and this was now. I have no idea what those sons knew or thought about their parents’ pasts. Anna Rosner Blay’s biography-cum-family-memoir, Sister, sister, has reminded me of those days and made me wonder, yet again, about the lives whose paths I so airily crossed.

Around that time, I also started reading “Holocaust literature”. I’ve read memoirs about surviving the war, including most recently Halina Rubin’s Journeys with my mother (my review), and novels about survival, such as Imre Kertèsz’s Fateless (my review), but Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister, sister adds new ground to my reading. Not only is it about two sisters, Polish Jews, who survived the war from the early restrictions, through ghetto, concentration camps, death marches and factories, to their eventual emigration to Australia, but it also exposes the longterm effects of Holocaust experiences, particularly on the next generation. It’s a moving book.

Three voices

Blay presents the story in three voices: those of her aunt Janka and mother Hela, and her own. Janka and Hela’s voices are clearly identified interview-style, while her voice is conveyed via italics without her name being appended. An interesting decision, but it works. Blay captured the sisters’ stories via tape-recorder and notebook, and then “transcribed and rearranged” them, primarily, I’m assuming, to get them into chronological order, given the stories came out in fits and starts, late in the sisters’ lives. Towards the end of the book Blay writes:

My mother’s accounts are often disjointed, abbreviated, shreds that veer away from the painful reality. But at other times they are laid out before me, complete and pulsating with life, precious jewels that I must handle very carefully.

She has, indeed, handled them (and her aunt’s) memories very carefully to produce a story that is horrifying, horrifying as a personal story, but also because it is clearly representative of a more universal experience of the millions of Jews who suffered under the Nazi regime, which just compounds the horror.

I’ll start with the universal. A survival story, Sister, sister describes the brutality, degradation and humiliation which the Germans visited upon the Jews during the war. You’ve heard the stories before, but, oh dear, to read yet again of the utter inhumanity is appalling. I couldn’t possibly quote the most brutal, so here’s a minor example. Both women ended up separately at Auschwitz. Both were stripped, shaved, sent into showers (that were – what a relief – real showers) – and then tossed random clothing and mismatched shoes. Hela received two left clogs causing blisters, while Janka’s pair comprised “one with a high heel and the other flat. I therefore walked with a limp.”

Surviving this war was, Janka tells, “a macabre game of chance”:

We hardly ever knew what would turn out to be good for us and what should be avoided, possibly by subterfuge. Sometimes being led to a train could mean being sent to a small camp with a factory, and easy work; other times it could mean being sent to death. Sometimes you could save your life just by lingering, which was dangerous in itself. There was no way of knowing how to survive …

And this brings me to the personal, because while the sisters’ experiences are universal, they are also deeply personal. One of the things that Blay does very well is capture Janka and Hela’s individual personalities. Janka tends to be more expansive, telling more stories in more detail. She is also “braver”. She lingers (drawing her sister or friends back) when she thinks to go forward means death; she lies about her skills when she thinks that will get her a better “job” and/or keep her with people she knows; she negotiates black market deals (to swap her mismatched shoes, for example); and so on. She identifies these, and other situations she survives, as “miracles”. The younger Hela – just 18 years old when the war ends – is, by her own admission, less brave, more fearful. She relies on her sister and later, a friend, to keep herself together when times get tough. She’s lucky to end up, towards the end of the war, as a Schindlerjuden, through her musician husband. But this is not to say she’s a wuss. She’s a hard worker, a skilled seamstress, and she survived. You had to be strong as well as lucky to survive. Janka, ten years Hela’s senior, says:

When we were girls Hela was like a flower that had opened too early, its fragile petals still crumpled and sheltered from the ways of the world. But she also had the strength to persist in harsh times, and to continue to flourish even in a storm.

Through directly presenting the sisters’ personal voices, Blay brings them alive as individuals in addition to representing them as survivors in general.

But, there’s a third prong to this story, the one that apparently forms the crux of Magda Szubanski’s recent memoir Reckoning. I’m talking the impact on the next generation. This is where Anna’s voice comes in. Again Blay handles this well, with Anna’s italicised reflections appearing intermittently in response to comments by one or other sister. Her voice is mostly gentle, without histrionics, but we are left in no doubt as to the longterm impact of the experience on the sisters and the way this has transmitted to the next generation. There are losses galore – losses of people and connections, for a start. Anna describes visiting a school friend who shows some of her “treasures” – a war medal, photos, some family jewellery. Anna writes:

She asks if I like the treasures; I nod, unable to speak. The tightness grows to a hollowness, an empty feeling that can’t be filled. The threads that link Linda to her past are strong, glowing. They are made manifest by the treasures before me, and I sense that it is not the objects themselves that have so taken my breath away. It is not their beauty or value that tugs at me, but the world of significant connections that surrounds them.

So, not only are there no grandparents, but there no objects to provide a link, a sense of history. Other losses are deeper, more psychological. Hela’s fear of hunger, of death, of fear itself, are also transmitted, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so, to her daughter:

My mother is always anxious at mealtimes. She coaxes me to eat more and checks how much I am putting in my mouth.


I never trust strangers.


My earliest nightmare is of a narrow cobblestoned lane. Fences on both sides crowd me in. As I walk along, alone, I realise I am being followed. An old man comes behind me with a sack, and grabs me …

Anna’s comments are not chronological, because they respond more organically to the sisters’ experiences, but together they convey how experiences – even when the telling of them has been withheld until late in life – carry through to the next generation. Anna’s stories, though, never overwhelm her aunt’s and mother’s because they are the main game. Anna sums it up best late in the book:

the enormity of the injustice and of the horror defies expression … [yet] … The power of the human spirit to survive, despite everything, is limitless.

Sister, sister was shortlisted for the Age Book of the Year Award and the New South Wales Premier’s Award in 1998. It’s not hard to see why.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also read and admired this book.

awwchallenge2016Anna Rosner Blay
Sister, sister
Alexandria: Hale & Iremonger, 1998
ISBN: 9780868066479

(Review copy courtesy the author)

Halina Rubin, Journeys with my mother (Review)

Halina Rubin, Journeys with my motherI’ve read a lot of World War 2 literature over the years, but very little from the Polish point of view, so I was more than willing to read Halina Rubin’s Journeys with my mother when it was offered to me a few months ago. Rubin was born in Warsaw on 27 August 1939. Note the date: her mother, Ola, was still recovering in hospital when Germany invaded Poland a few days later. Within two months, her parents, secular Jews, had fled to the Soviet Union, and this is where the young Halinka and her mother saw out the war. It’s a fascinating story – and it’s told in a thoughtful way.

Rubin divides her story into two parts. Part 1 is mainly background. It provide some family history about her parents, Ola and Władek, and their parents before she was born, but it also describes the depth of anti-Semitism with which they lived, long before the war started. It tells how her parents were radicalised early, how for them “the ideals of communism offered a way to solve the twin problems of unemployment and poverty, and put an end to racial hatred”. Oh, such idealism … but her parents, despite experiencing political betrayal, never fully lost their values and commitment to social causes.

Anyhow, part 2, which conveniently aligns with the start of the war, tells the story of her nuclear family after she was born. “I try to imagine” she writes of those opening days of the war, “how abruptly, how without mercy, their world changed”. She describes how, with their faith in the Soviet Union, her parents fled to Białystok, once a Polish town but now under Soviet control, while other members of the family made different decisions or timed their flight decisions differently, with, in most cases, tragic consequences.

Halina and her family lived there for nearly two years, Ola working as a nurse, until Germany betrayed the Soviet, invaded – and the atrocities began. So, they fled again, heading further east for Russia itself. Władek was taken to join the Red Army, but Ola and Halina made it to Oryol where Ola worked again as a nurse. Later, mother and daughter, who were evacuated under German orders from Oryol, went to Lida in Belarus, and from there they escaped into the forests where they joined the partisans – because, remember, Ola was a committed communist. It’s astonishing, really, that Ola and her oh-so-young daughter survived the threats and privations of such a life, but survive they did:

Around us was a forest so dense that even wild animals – boars, deer and wolves – chose to follow the same known tracks. The myriad of lakes made the terrain marshy.

Only the locals knew how to get their bearings, how to keep away from the swamps ready to swallow you up; how to keep the wolves away. It was a perfect place to hide, but tough to survive.

They were wet, cold, and desperately hungry. A truly amazing story of survival against a backdrop of egregious political treachery.

Journeys with my mother doesn’t end with the war, however, but follows her parents as they return to Poland, then move to Israel, and finally, after her father’s death, her mother’s move to join her in Australia. Rubin describes the early days of peace – the adjustments that had to be made as people separated from war-time friends and connections, and reunited, if they were lucky, with family members; the impact of political decisions being made about governance and borders; and, shockingly, the continuing anti-Semitism. She asks:

Who could have predicted that peacetime would be so difficult?

Although a very different book about a different war, this reminded me of Olivera Simić’s book Surviving peace which I reviewed a year or so ago.

But I’ll leave the story here – to move onto the telling.

I’ve categorised this as an autobiography or memoir but it could also be described as biography, since Rubin’s prime focus is the life of her parents. And that required research, as she didn’t manage to capture all she could before they died. This is partly because she didn’t start thinking about (aka wasn’t very interested in) documenting her parents’ lives until after her father had died, by which time her mother was old, but also because the story was so stressful that her mother found it hard to tell. Rubin writes:

As always, whenever remembering her parents or sisters or the years of the war, eventually her voice would turn into a whisper and tears would well up her eyes. In the very last tape, I hear her say, ‘That’s enough, I cannot go on.’ The tape is still recording when I say, ‘Let’s have tea.’ The conversation was never resumed. I did not have the heart to put her through that ordeal again.

Rubin had done this taping before her mother’s death in 2001, but it was not until some years later, with the encouragement of her daughter, that she delved into “two boxes filled with papers, photographs, letters, notebooks and correspondence”. These plus her mother’s stories got her going, but there were gaps, so she travelled back to the places they’d lived, talked to old friends and a surviving cousin, trying to complete the story. She reports this directly and consciously in the book, switching between describing her fact-finding trips (revisiting places, meeting people) and recounting her and her parents’ lives in the places she visits. In other words, she takes us on her research journey – and I like that. It does give the story a disjointedness that might irritate some readers, but for me it adds to the interest and, yes, authenticity.

Like all such research, there are serendipitous finds and wonderful coincidences. One such occurs during a meeting with Valerii Slivkin from a museum in Lida. He shows her a document written by partisans after the war. They mention “the presence of ‘a four-year-old-girl'”. That girl of course was her! Earlier in the book, during one of her discussions of her mother’s stories, she says:

My mother was my first, albeit sketchy, narrator. When talking about the past she would get distressed so her storytelling could be convoluted, meandering around events, places, people. And I had not been a good listener. Perturbed, intent on not missing as much as my mother’s sigh, I could hardly concentrate. Later, however, I would discover how clearly she, in fact, remembered the events of the past.

Slivkin is one of those whose information confirms “how accurate she was”.

However, Rubin is also realistic about the limits of what you can know or discover. Looking at photo of her aunt who died early in the war, she wonders about the story behind the photo:

Ewa looks pregnant. I wonder if this is another family secret or simply a never told story. And if the complexities of our lives are at times impossible to unravel, how much more impossible are the events of the past. Nothing is certain.

It sure isn’t. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look for the certainties – and Rubin, in this book, has given it a red hot go.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed the book.

awwchallenge2016Halina Rubin
Journeys with my mother
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2015
ISBN: 9781925272093

(Review copy courtesy Hybrid Publishers)

Gabrielle Gouch, Once, only the swallows were free (Review)

Gabrielle Gouch, Once, only swallows were free

Courtesy: Hybrid Publishers

Do you differentiate memoir from autobiography? I do. For me, a memoir, such as Gabrielle Gouch’s Once, only the swallows were free, deals with a specific aspect of a person’s life, such as a sportsman writing about his career when he retires from it or a person writing about her growing up, like, say, Alice Pung‘s Unpolished gem. An autobiography, on the other hand, I see as something more holistic, something written near the end of one’s life and summing up its entirety. What do you think?

Gabrielle Gouch was born in Transylvania, Romania to parents who’d both fled anti-Semitic Hungary. She moved elsewhere in Romania with her family before they emigrated to Israel, without her older half-brother, when she was around 20. A few years later, she emigrated on her own to Australia which has remained her home ever since. This is the basic chronology of her life, but Gouch is not really interested in telling us this story chronologically – and in fact, she’s not really interested in telling us the story of her life. What interests her is the brother, Tom, left behind. She wants to know about his life during and post communism in Romania. She also wants to know about the gaps in her knowledge of the family.

Gouch therefore doesn’t tell the story in a simple chronology. While she clearly signposts where you are as you read, I found it a little disconcerting to start with, until I felt familiar with the places and people she was writing about. This, however, could be due to other things going on in my life as I started this book. The memoir starts in 1990 with her first return to Transylvania after “the collapse of communism. The eternal and invincible communism”. A return that took place 25 years after she had left. As the book progresses, she visits Cluj several times, catching up with her brother, learning about her family. It’s a sad story – not surprisingly. Tom’s mother, the much beloved, vivacious Hella, died in childbirth. His – and eventually Gabrielle’s – father, Stefan, married the nanny, refugee Roza, hired in to look after the physically handicapped Tom. (As far as I can tell, his condition is hemiplegia, probably caused by the forceps birth). Roza and Stefan went on to have two children – Gabrielle and, somewhat later, Yossi – but country girl Roza was never accepted by Stefan’s well-to-do family.

The book proper starts in 1962 with the family expecting permission to migrate to Israel to arrive any minute. Of course, it doesn’t – and it is not until some 40 or so pages and three years later that they are finally able to leave. They leave without Tom, now well into his twenties, but exactly why this is so is not understood by Gouch. During the course of the book she finds out why – and she finds out what Tom’s life was like under the communist regime. It’s a very interesting story, and once you master the time shifts across the book’s seven parts, it’s a very readable one. The very short Part 2, for example, returns to the opening of the book, her return in 1990. Then Part 3 jumps to 2002 and another trip of hers “home”. From then on the focus is her time with Tom and the stories she gradually pieces together.

Gouch is a good writer. Her language is expressive, but not over-done. That is, she has some lovely turns of phrase that capture moments and people well. Here, for example, she describes her family’s reaction when her mother says something surprising:

We looked at her as if she had made her way into our home by the back door somehow, a woman we had never met before.

And I like this simple description of children:

Well, children are like shares, you never know how they will turn out.

There are two main threads in the book, one being life under communism, as experienced by Tom, and the other being the life of the emigrant, as experienced by her family. The book is enlightening for people interested in either of these topics, but I’m going to highlight the second, the emigrant’s life, because she explains it beautifully – from the tough life her parents experienced in Israel to her own experience of dislocation from culture. She writes, as she starts to reconnect with her brother:

Noone ever told me that you cannot turn physical distance into emotional one, you cannot forget your native country, you cannot give up your mother tongue. It deadens you inside.

She gives one of the best descriptions of the relationship of language to culture that I have read. She meets an old professor who had chosen to stay living under the repressive regime because, he said, “This is my native land, my language. I belong here.” She writes:

His words lingered. ‘My native land, my language.’ For most people, the sound of Hungarian is awkward; for me it is poetry and delight. When I say ‘flower’ in English I refer to a plant with petals and colours. But the word in Hungarian, virág, sounds to me melodious and joyful. Yes, you can learn to speak a language, you can even learn to think in a language but will you feel the same joy and sadness at the sound of those words? Feel the black desperation or be uplifted by hope? Will the word love evoke the same tenderness and ardour? I don’t think so.

Australian Women Writers ChallengeGouch also writes about “history”, about the impact on people of living through some of history’s trickiest times, as her family had. Her description of her father’s life – a loving father who had worked hard – is heart-rending:

A man who was a Jew but not Jewish enough, an Israeli but not quite, a Hungarian Jew among Romanians and a Jew among Hungarians. Finally he left this world with its divisive nationalisms, ideologies and religions which had marred most of his life. He was just another man on whom history had inflicted its painful and murderous pursuits: Nazism, the Second World War, the communist dictatorship, the Arab-Israeli conflict and Israeli religiosity. History had match-made him, history had controlled his life. It was over. He joined the infinite Universe.

I’ve possibly quoted too much, but Gouch’s words are powerful and worth sharing.

“Knowledge”, Gouch’s father once told her, “is your only possession”. Once, only the swallows were free is a story of discovery for Gouch, but for us, it provides a window into a particular place, time and experience that most of us know little about. The knowledge, the understanding, we gain from reading it is a precious thing.

Gabrielle Gouch
Once, only the swallows were free: A memoir
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2013
ISBN: 9781921665998

(Review copy supplied by Hybrid Publishers)

Howard Jacobson, The Finkler question

Howard Jacobson's The Finkler question

Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler question (Courtesy: Bloomsbury Publishing)

Whispering Gums, as you would expect, writes erudite marginalia and so you’d be in for a treat if you ever obtained my copy of Howard Jacobson‘s 2010 Booker award winning novel, The Finkler question. The margins are peppered with my reactions, like, you know, “Ha!” and “Oh dear”. Riveting stuff … and yet, what comments would you make in this book? Ah yes, “stereotyping” is another one, because that, really, is the springboard from which this rather funny book is written.

Do I need to summarise the plot? I feel that I’m about the last blogger to read this book, but just in case I’m not, here goes …  It concerns three longstanding friends: Julian Treslove and Sam Finkler who have been friends since schooldays, and Libor Sevcik who was their teacher at school. At the beginning of the book, Finkler and Libor, both Jews, have been recently widowed. Treslove, the non-Jew, is the “honorary third” widower because he is single (yet again). The novel’s premise is that Treslove would like to be a Jew …

Why, you might ask, would Treslove want to be a Jew (or, a Finkler, as he privately calls them – and hence the title)? It is not an accident that Treslove’s occupation when the novel opens is to be a paid double (or “lookalike”) of famous people at parties, conferences, corporate events:

Treslove didn’t look like anybody famous in particular, but looked like many famous people in general, and so was in demand if not by virtue of verisimilitude, at least by virtue of versatility.

And that’s pretty much how his Jewishness goes too. He might look and play the part but, deep down, can a non-Jew ever really be Jewish? Treslove is about to find out.

Jacobson has a way with words. It was this, together with the endless discussion, using every Jewish stereotype going, of what makes a Finkler (a Jew, remember!) a Finkler, that kept me going through a book that I wasn’t really sure was going anywhere. I laughed at Treslove’s incomprehension of Finkler (the character, this time):

“Do you know anyone called Juno?” Treslove asked.
“J’you know Juno?” Finkler replied, making inexplicable J noises between his teeth.
Treslove didn’t get it.
“J’you know Juno? Is that what you’re asking me?”
Treslove still didn’t get it. So Finkler wrote it down. D’Jew know Jewno?
Treslove shrugged. “Is that supposed to be funny?”

Oh dear! “Julian Treslove knew he’d never be clever in a Finklerish way” but, despite this, he continues with his goal to be Jewish. Meanwhile, Finkler, grieving for his wife and a marriage he still doesn’t understand, tries to dissociate himself from Jews (particularly Zionists) through membership of the ASHamed Jews. And Libor, grieving heavily for his true love, tries to dissuade Treslove from his ambition.

The book chronicles a year or so in the life of these three as each confronts his particular challenge. Treslove falls in love with Libor’s (Jewish) great-niece, Hephzibah, furthering, he hopes, his path to Jewishness; Finkler starts to fall out with the ASHamed Jews though not with their anti-Zionist principles; and Libor starts to fall out of life itself. All of this is told with both warmth and humour. The humour is always there, and yet is never pushed so far that the humanity of the characters is lost. You feel for them, despite their flaws and foibles. You want Julian, the hopeless father and failed lover, to make a go of it this time. You want Finkler to make peace with his Jewishness. And you want old Libor to get over his grief and join the world again. But through all this, you wonder, why? Why is Jacobson writing this story?

I have a few ideas. One may simply be to capture the diversity of Jewishness. Through all the stereotypes that made me laugh (Jews are musical, brokenhearted, rich, clever, comic, and so on), Jacobson shows that Jews, like any other group, are not all the same, cannot all be put in the one basket. Another  reason, though it’s depressing to think it’s needed, may be to defend Jews in an anti-Semitic world, to show their humanity. You care for these characters whose troubles with identity, love and loss are universal. And another may be to explore Zionism, safely. Can Zionism be defended? Has it changed into something more ugly, something that undermines its original conception?

In the end I did like this book because, while I was contemplating the “why”, I was engaged by the characters and their stories. The novel commences with Treslove, the would-be Jew, but it concludes with Finkler, the troubled Jew. Here he is, towards the end:

He was a thinker who didn’t know what he thought, except that he had loved and failed and now missed his wife, and that he hadn’t escaped what was oppressive about Judaism by joining a Jewish group that gathered to talk feverishly about the oppressiveness of being Jewish. Talking feverishly about being Jewish was being Jewish.

Ha! You said it, Mr Jacobson, I’m tempted to say. But that would be too smart-alecky of me because the book is, in fact, as much about humanity as it is about being Jewish.

Howard Jacobson
The Finkler question
London: Bloomsbury, 2011
ISBN: 9781408818466

Imre Kertèsz, Fateless (or Fatelessness)


Let’s get the first thing clear. I like holocaust literature – not because I enjoy the subject matter but because in it I find the most elemental, universal truths about humanity. Depending on the book, this literature contains various combinations of bravery and cowardice, cruelty and kindness, love and hate, self-sacrifice, self-preservation and betrayal, resilience and resignation, and  well, all those qualities that make up humanity and its converse, inhumanity. I have by no means read all that is out there but here are some that have moved me: Anne Frank’s The diary of a young girl (of course) and Anne Holm’s I am David, from my youth, and then books like Martin Amis’ Time’s arrow, Bernhard Schlink’s The reader, Marcus Zusak’s The book thief, and Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the river. There are gaps, though, in my reading, such as Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s ark (I did see the film), the works of Primo Levi, and Elie Wiesel’s Night. I have, however, just added Imre Kertèsz’s Fateless to my list of books read.

Kertèsz, 2007 (Photo by Csaba Segesvari, from Wikipedia under GNU Free Documentation License 1.2)
Kertèsz, 2007 (Photo by Csaba Segesvari, from Wikipedia under GNU Free Documentation License 1.2)

Kertèsz adds a new spin to the universal truths explored by these books – it’s what he describes (in my 1992 translation anyhow) as “stubbornness” which seems to me to mean “resilience” or a determination to survive, and even to have, if possible, little wins against the system.

Anyhow, first the plot. The novel takes place over the last year of the war and concerns Gyorgy Koves, a 14-year old Hungarian Jew, who, one day, is suddenly called off a bus, along with all other Jews on the bus and transported to Auschwitz, and then Buchenwald, Zeitz and back to Buchenwald, before returning home at war’s end. It chronicles his experiences, his thinking, and the impact on him of his experience. He begins as the archetypal naive narrator…but by the end, though his tone has changed little, he is no longer naive. This is rather beautifully achieved as we see his youthful application of logic being changed into something more cynical and survival focused.

Gyorgy speaks with a strange sense of detachment borne, to start with, of an apparent unawareness of what exactly was happening to him and a disbelief that anything untoward would happen. And so, in the beginning, as events unfold he describes them as “natural” because of course, when they got to Auschwitz, it was sensible to inspect each person to see who was physically fit and capable of working. He didn’t know then what would happen to those not found physically fit. The horror gradually builds as reality sets in and he goes about making it through each day – through his share of beatings, the reduced food rations, and all the other deprivations that make up concentration camp life. In the first part of the book he uses the term “naturally” to mean some sort of normal logic but by the end it comes to mean, as he explains to a journalist who asks him why he keeps using the word for things that aren’t natural, that these things were natural in a concentration camp.

Early on in his captivity he says that they approached their life (and work) “with the best of intentions” but they soon discover that these “best of intentions” do not bring about any kindness from their overseers, and so his attitude to getting on, to surviving starts to change. As he starts to physically weaken, become emaciated and develop infections, he observes that “my body was still there. I was thoroughly familiar with it, only somehow I myself no longer lived inside it”. Always dispassionate, always matter-of-fact, while describing the most heart-rending things.

Towards the end, he is placed in a hospital ward and there he is treated better and, even, with a certain amount of kindness. This in its way is as shocking to him as the cruel beatings he experienced at Zeitz. He can see no logic, “no reason for its being, nothing rational or familiar”. He can only understand kindness in terms of the giver receiving “some pleasure” from it or having some “personal need” satisfied. Never is there any sense that altruism might come into play. His view of “justice” is based very much on survival. He says, when he is spared, “everything happened according to the rules of justice … I was able to accept a situation more easily when it concerned someone else’s bad luck rather than my own … This was the lesson I learned”.

And so, in the end he returns home, and finds it hard to explain to people just what happened and how he now views life. He describes getting through his time as “taking one step after another”, focusing just on the moment. He implies that if he had known his fate he would have focused on time passing – a far more soul-destroying activity than concentrating on getting through each day “step by step”. This brings us to the fate/fateless bit. He says at the end that:

if there is a fate, there is no freedom … if, on the other hand, there is freedom, then there is no fate. That is … that is, we ourselves are fate.

I find this a little hard to grasp but he seems to be saying that we are free to make our own choices, even in a concentration camp – we are not fated but make our own fate. He was and is not prepared to accept any other approach to life. But life will not be easy:

I am here, and I know full well that I have to accept the prize of being allowed to live … I have to continue my uncontinuable life … There is no impossibility that cannot be overcome (survived?).

And yet, at the very end of the book, he says “and even back there [in the concentration camp], in the shadow of the chimneys, there was something resembling happiness”. Wow! This is an astonishing book – it charts horrors with a calmness that is quite shocking, and it is particularly shocking not because Gyorgy is unfeeling but because he can’t quite grasp what is happening to him. This is the fundamental irony of the book, and the fundamental truth of a naive narrator: we the reader know exactly how it is even as Gyorgy tries to make sense of it using logic and reason. I must read this book again – and preferably the newer more highly regarded 2004 translation by Tom Wilkinson.

(Translated by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson)