#20BooksofSummer: No. 2 – Ludovic Bruckstein (transl. Alastair Ian Blyth)

Ludovic Bruckstein: The Trap, transl. Alastair Ian Blyth, published by Istros Books

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve only just now read this book, although I attended the book launch back in September. I was very impressed by the author’s son and his efforts to get his father’s work published in English, as well as the timeliness of these two novellas and what they have to say to a present-day readership. So I am not quite sure why I tarried for so long – except that I always tend to hoard those books that I am pretty sure I will like… for a rainy day.

Both novellas explore life in a small town in the region of Maramures in the north of Romania. At least, it is in Romania nowadays, but over the past 200 years or so the borders have shifted many, many times. This is a part of the country where Romanians, Germans, Hungarians and Jews used to live together cheek by jowl, although the dominant ethnic group changed over the course of history. One thing you can be sure of, however, is that the Jewish community (and probably the Roma, although they don’t get mentioned in this book) were always among the most oppressed.

It seems an idyllic location. Although the land is mountainous and the soil poor, the people who live there are attached to their land. One of the anecdotes in the book states that the peasants from that area were given the choice to move to the far more fertile plains of Banat to the west of Romania, but they refused. However, as the Second World War descends upon this beautiful landscape, some will no longer be given the choice to remain there.

The Trap is the story of Ernst Blumenthal, a young man who had been studying architecture in Vienna before the Anschluss but has now rejoined his family in Sighet. Life is getting harder and harder for Jews and the order has come for them to stitch yellow stars to their clothes.

To Ernst… the law seemed not only humiliating, not only insulting, but also stupid and ridiculous. It was a small town and everybody knew everybody else… Nobody tried to hide what he was. The law was quite simply idiotic. If a person knows you, what is the point of his making you wear a sign to say you are who you are? And if a person doesn’t know you, what is it to him what race you are?… But if the law demanded a distinguishing mark for Jews, why should it not demand a different mark for all the other races? Each with his own star or cross… it would be only right for Hungarians to wear a green star, their favourite colour… and for Romanians to wear a blue star, and for Zipser Germans to wear a black star… and Ukrainians a pink star… and so on and so forth.

All of a sudden, on a peaceful Saturday, thirty Jewish men are rounded up as they are about to head home for the Sabbath meal and kept for hours by the SS at the Palace of Culture. Personally humiliated by one of the young SS commanders, in fear of being enlisted to serve in labour brigades (Jews were not considered trustworthy enough to serve in the army), Ernst is persuaded by his family to hide in the mountains. He finds shelter with a Romanian peasant family, but soon realises that he poses a real danger to them, so he spends most of his time wandering through the forests and hills with a view of his home town. And he can’t help but notice that things are changing down there.

Just yesterday, the prison was as big as the whole country… Now, the town was a prison, surrounded by invisible walls and guarded by soldiers. And tomorrow? What would tomorrow bring? The streets and then the houses would become prisons. And the walls would close in more and more narrowly, and every person would be a prison unto himself. And a prison guard unto himself…

Bruckstein is so good at capturing the gradual encroachment of dictatorship and racism in an average community, where people are neither better nor worse than anywhere else. It is far too easy to be a bystander – and there is no such thing as neutrality when evil starts to dominate.

That is also the case in the second, longer novella entitled The Rag Doll. Here we have nearly an entire life story, rather than just a brief moment in time. Hanna is the much-loved only child of a Jewish watch-maker, whose skills are hugely appreciated in their small (unnamed) town – probably Sighet once more. She falls in love with a Romanian man, Theodor, whose family are considerably wealthier. Despite their families’ objections to their marriage, they elope and settle in a village far away. Even as war comes knocking at their doors, they continue with their regular tea parties and mild gossip spread about by the village midwife. Because Hanna accompanies her husband to church on Sunday, everyone assumes she is a Christian and not a Jew. Although she had not set out to deliberately deceive them, she is forced into hiding more and more as the discriminatory rules against Jews proliferate. Especially when she sees the reaction of the other villagers when it is revealed that their pharmacist might be a Jew:

The notary felt personally offended, the same as if he had caught Maturinski cheating at cards – the same Maturinski with whom he had sat at table so many times, playing poker or rummy or sixty-six or eight-nine, drinking tea laced with rum and neat rum without tea. Worse still, he felt insulted, as if he had caught him stealing from his pocket… Even though Mr Maturinski had never been asked who he was and consequently had never denied it. Nobody had ever seen him set foot in either the church or the synagogue. And he had never been asked who he was because everybody knew that Mr Edvard Maturinski was the village pharmacist, the proprietor of the Hypocrates, an excellent apothecary, always ready to lend a hand… a polite, courteous man, the village ‘gallant’. And hitherto that had been quite sufficient for everybody…

Not everybody is indignant or complicit. The doctor refuses to give up one of his Jewish patients. The village priest faces a real crisis of faith when he is told to tone down his rhetoric to be more compliant with the SS troops whom he regards as the Antichrist. Sadly, although Hanna is spared the worst of the war, she discovers that the end of the war doesn’t mean the end of anti-semitic rhetoric.

The stories of ordinary people caught up in hate-mongering and treating others as subhumans during war-time may seem familiar, but clearly, given our inability to learn from history, these stories need to be told again and again. I may be biased because of the setting – there was so much loving description of the natural surroundings there – but I felt these stories were fresh and added a new historical perspective.  The translation did feel a bit old-fashioned in parts but perhaps that reflects the period and the author’s style.

 

Marghanita Laski: Little Boy Lost for #PersephoneReadathon

I found out rather late that this weekend would be a mini-readathon of Persephone books, but I have a few unread ones on my shelf, so couldn’t resist joining in. Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski is reasonably short, and I had enjoyed my other foray into Laski’s work The Victorian Chaise-Longue, so I had a nice lie-in on Saturday (which hasn’t happened in ages) and devoured almost half of it, to be followed by more of the same on Sunday morning.

It is a very simple story of the search for a missing child: Hilary Wainwright had to leave his wife and child behind in France during the war. His wife died and his two-year old son disappeared, so he is now trying to retrace him. Pierre, a former resistance fighter who knew his wife, helps piece together the probable escape route for the child and they trace him (or a boy who corresponds closely to their reconstructed story) to an orphanage in the north of France. Hilary goes there to meet the boy, and decide if he is his son and therefore worthy of being rescued.

This book was written soon after the end of the Second World War and it’s a candid, uncomfortable portrait of a world that has been reduced to rubble both literally and metaphorically. The contrast between the relatively shielded world of England and the devastation of most of continental Europe is stark. The nephews and nieces pouting under the Christmas tree because their presents were not exactly what they expected are the counterpoint of the little boy Jean and his pathetic little collection of ‘treasures’: a pine cone, a marble with all its colour rubbed away and a headless swan.

Laski is extremely good at observing a certain class of Englishman and their romanticised notions of France. They suffer to see France in ruins because of what they have lost, as much as for the sake of the inhabitants.

Yet where those ruins now stood, the people who were part of the nation he regarded as the most civilised in the world had led full satisfactory lives, eating with informed pleasure, arguing with informed logic, strolling up and down in the warm summer evenings, sitting at cafes and watching the promenade pass by… It seemed to Hilary that bomb damage in a French town was a greater tragedy than elsewhere because here the way of life destroyed was in complete antithesis to all that bombs were trying to achieve.

Good though she is at depicting the self-centredness of this type of Englishman abroad, Laski is also unsparing in her depiction of a country that has had to suffer the humiliation of conquest, where people have had to make choices about collaborating with their invaders or resisting. She raises the question: ‘What would you have done under the circumstances?’ Given that Hilary cannot resist the lure of the black market at his hotel in France in order to get better dinners and coffee, even though he knows it is morally wrong and depriving the poorer people of food, I suspect the answer is: ‘Chosen the easy route.’

The receptionist who so politely gave me my fiche to fill in – had he performed the same service for Germans, bowing without a trace of hate on his face, without hate even in his heart? Is it even possible that it is I, not the German, whom he hates?

He burst out to Pierre as soon as the porter had put down the bag and closed the door, ‘Don’t you wonder, with every stranger you meet, what he did under the Occupation?’

‘Oh yes,’ said Pierre promptly, ‘but automatically now and without caring about the answer. I’m tired with “collaborationist” as a term of abuse; we each did under the Germans what we were capable of doing; what that was, was settled long before they arrived.’

The orphan boy Jean is so appealing that my maternal instincts were instantly aroused. I would have wrapped him up in something warm without a second thought and taken him home with me. But Hilary is careful and cautious and wants to make sure not only that this is indeed his son, but that he is still capable of loving someone and of being loved. In actual fact, he is far more of the lost boy of the title than the thin little waif Jean… but dearie me, is it hard to empathise with him! I could barely resist the impulse to say: you are a grown-up, you haven’t gone through half of the hardships this child has had to endure, just get over yourself and show some compassion!

I cannot recommend this book highly enough: it has both heart and a very analytical mind. One of the best Persephones I’ve read yet, a window into the post-war world that should give those hankering after the ‘glory days’ pause for thought.

#WITMonth: Svetlana Alexievich and Women’s War

Svetlana Alexievich: The Unwomanly Face of War (transl. Pevear & Volokhonsky)

This oral history of Soviet women’s experience of WW2 was compiled with sensitivity, patience and emotion by Svetlana Alexievich in the 1980s, updated in 2000 and has finally been translated into English by that indefatigable duo that is Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

And what a surprising, moving and often shocking story it is! It provides an alternative view of war, from the point of view of women on the front line, as well as the lesser known point of view (in the Western world) of the terrible human cost of war amongst the Soviet army. It is an unforgettable virtuoso piece of storytelling and it left me in goosebumps, although I’d heard a few (much milder) stories from my own grandmothers.

Author picture from The Independent.

Alexievich explains her mission in the foreword (and it was revolutionary back then, in the days before perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet empire): history is ‘in the street, in the crowd, in each of us there is a small piece of history’. She wants to give voice to those who have been ignored, forgotten, whitewashed out of history, who have been silenced or simply never been listened to. Not all of the women wanted to speak to her at first: for some, the memories were too painful, for others it was like opening up a dam. On the whole, she is received with warmth, made up of equal parts eagerness to share the untold stories, and reluctance to dwell too much on the details. They explain in simple terms, in language so stark and unadorned, yet with such vivid detail, what it means to survive such darkness.

Although few women veterans suffered the fate of the men who returned to war only to be sent to gulags by Stalin, it is quite shocking to read of the less than triumphant reception many of them experienced. There was no counselling, no treatment for post-traumatic stress after the war. Many of them received nothing except for a few medals – not even adequate housing which they should have been entitled to as war veterans. The state ignored or downplayed their contribution (perhaps out of a sense of shame that they had to resort to using women in their war effort), there was little support for these heroines and little effort to reintegrate them into society. In contrast to the protective and gallant way they had been treated by their male comrades at the front, many women had to pretend afterwards that they had never been in battle, because the men feared these women and longed to marry someone more feminine and untarnished by violence.

Unsurprisingly, women felt that the Great Victory came at a terrible human cost and sacrifice, and they are more aware of this and more willing to acknowledge it, while men were disposed to wax more nostalgic about heroic deeds and former Soviet greatness. And yet, one of the women says:

Life is hard… not because our pensions are small and humiliating. What wounds us most of all is that we have been driven from a great past into an unbearably small present.

In other words, they are beginning to wonder if it was all worth it. Yet, at the time, no one questioned the ideology. It was not just that their country was attacked, nor that they unquestioningly followed Stalin. They just felt they had to do something to help, they did not stop to think of themselves (or of their families or even their children) – they felt they were cornered and had no choice other than fighting the enemy as best they could. These women were not just nurses, doctors, bakers, laundrywomen, but also engineers, telecommunication experts, tank commanders, snipers, artillery and cavalry soldiers etc. They were everywhere and each one of them saw things that are almost unbelievable and unbearable. And, unlike men, they struggled far more with killing the enemy or watching their comrades die. One married couple reminisce about the war together and the husband says at one point that the grandchildren don’t want to hear his tales about historical detail, generals, facts, figures. They want to listen to her stories, which are all about feelings and momentary impressions.

War is first of all murder, and then hard work. And then simply ordinary life… how unbearable and unthinkable it is to die and to kill…

It’s the small details which make all the difference: the shoes which were several sizes too big and caused blisters; how they all had to chop off their braids; how uncomfortable it was to pee when they were in the tank with all the men; how they would kiss dying soldiers to soothe their pain; how there was no material to stop the flow of menstrual blood; how they could never bear the colour red after the war or buy meat from the shops.

There is a section on the mixed feelings the army had when they reached Germany. How tidy and wealthy the country seemed to them, to the extent where they couldn’t understand why these Germans had wanted to attack other countries. How they felt they would never be able to forgive them, yet they fed the frightened German children. The women whisper (in fear) about how their male colleagues did in many cases kill in revenge, rape and pillage, things which had been left out of the official history books – ‘are we allowed to mention that now?’.

There is bittersweet recognition that human nature did not learn from the past:

We dreamed: ‘If only we survive… People will be so happy after the war. People who’ve been through so much will feel sorry for each other. They’ll be changed people… We never doubted it. Not a bit.

Some of the girls were as young as 16 when they joined up and only 18-19 by the time the war ended.

Yet there were also instances of compassion and I want to finish on one of those, with the simple, unfiltered words of someone who has witnessed it herself. The last interviewee in the book tells the story of when she was carrying two wounded soldiers on her back, in turns, from the battlefield around Stalingrad. At some point, she realises that one of them was a German and starts getting angry with herself for making a mistake.

Should I go back for the German or not? I knew that if I left him he would die soon… And I crawled back for him… There can’t be one heart for hatred and another for love. We only have one…

Pictures are from Sputnik International and Global Research websites.

#EU27Project: Czech Republic – Closely Observed Trains

I managed to find and order this book just in time and read it on the 31st of March for Caroline’s Literature and War Readalong. However, this was on the plane on the way to Lyon, so I didn’t get to write a review until this week.

Perhaps this should be an entry for Czechoslovakia, which is what the country was at the time when Bohumil Hrabal wrote this in 1965. But he wrote in Czech rather than Slovakian and, when he was born in 1914, his home town of Brno was in Moravia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The dangers of living in Central Europe… your borders may change several times over the course of your life.

After the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia following the Prague Spring in 1968, his books were banned, and you can see why that might be the case. He certainly has a mischievous streak in his story-telling, a combination of broad (almost slapstick) humour and darkness, but in Closely Observed Trains he is talking about the passive resistance of a group of railway workers against the occupation – and, although it takes place in the Second World War and the occupying forces are German, it probably resembled the situation at the time a little too closely.

Miloš Hrma is a rather naive young man, an apprentice at a railway station in Bohemia in 1945. The Germans have lost control over the airspace over the little town, and the trains are anything but running as normal.

The dive-bombers were disrupting communications to such an extent that the morning trains ran at noon, the noon trains in the evening, and the evening trains during the night, so that now and then it might happen that an afternoon train came in punctual to the minute, according to the time-table, but only because it was the morning passenger train running four hours late.

Miloš comes from a family where the men have successfully avoided hard labour for generations: his great-grandfather was only eighteen when he was granted a disability benefit for being wounded as a drummer-boy in the Imperial Army, his grandfather was a hypnotist who thought he could convince the marauding German tanks to turn back, his father had retired on a double-pension at the age of forty-eight and was busy collecting and recycling scraps, so that at home they have ‘fifty chairs, seven tables, nine couches, and shoals of little cabinets and washstands and jugs.’ Miloš himself is proud of his beautiful service uniform, with all the insignia of his status, brass buttons, splendid stars and a winged wheel like a little golden sea-horse.

Still from the film Closely Watched Trains, directed by Jiri Menzel, winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1968.

But he is a troubled boy, who has only just returned to duty after trying to slash his wrists three months previously. The reason for that (or at least the most overt reason for it) becomes gradually apparent: an embarrassing moment of sexual inadequacy with the young conductor Masha. He is desperate to lose his virginity, but not quite sure how to go about it, in equal measure intrigued and repulsed by his randy colleague Dispatcher Hubička’s gross misuse of the station’s official stamps upon the pretty telegraphist’s anatomy. Meanwhile, stationmaster Lánský only seems to care about his pigeons and not being made a fool of during the government inspection. Then, somehow, Miloš gets caught up in plans to sabotage an ammunition convoy passing through.

This image of Hrma from the film perfectly sums up the young man.

I’ll stop telling any more of the story here, because I run the risk of making my review longer than the actual story, which is very slim, around 80 pages. More of a novella really, but packed with content and emotion. Even the brief recount above gives you an idea of the tragicomic blend of gruesome fact and salacious humour, of rapier wit and compassion, even surreal elements, sometimes in the very same sentence. A very tricky balance to achieve, but not a word is wasted. Here is a description of the wounded soldiers returning from the front:

And in this mobile sick-bay at which I was gazing, the strangest thing was the human eyes, the eyes of all those wounded soldiers. As though that agony there at the front, the agony they had inflicted on others and which others now were inflicting on them, had turned them into different people; these Germans were more sympathetic than those who were travelling in the opposite direction. They all peered through the windows into the dull countryside so attentively, with such childlike earnestness, as though they were passing through paradise itself, as though in my little station they saw a jewel-box.

A remarkable, punchy read, with only slightly veiled depths. Even if the intention was not obviously political , this book was published at a time when each sentence could be (and indeed was) interpreted in both literal and metaphorical fashion. It has made me very eager to tackle another of Hrabal’s books Too Loud a Solitude.