Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik

36896898In Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik has woven together a handful of fairy tales to tell the stories of three women in a fantastical medieval Lithuania. Miryem is the daughter of a Jewish moneylender who is terrible at actually collecting money. Wanda is the daughter of a drunken, abusive father. Irina is the overlooked daughter of a duke. These women believe in their value and, as their stories take off and they mix with magic and danger, the three will finally have a chance to demand the respect they are owed.

We first meet Miryem before she takes over her father’s business. Her father is such a soft touch that its easy for the villagers to take advantage of him. But Miryem discovers a talent for making money when her mother falls ill and she has no choice but to go out and get money for food. She can turn silver into gold with her entrepreneurial skills—which unfortunately gets misinterpreted by the terrifying kind of the Staryk, who wants her to literally transform silver into gold and takes her away from her home to his snowy kingdom. Meanwhile, Wanda pays off her father’s debt by working for Miryem. In one of the less weird touches of magic, Wanda and her brothers is watched over by their mother’s spirit from where their mother lives in a snow tree.

It’s only later that we meet Irina, who attracts the attention of the tsar. This might have been the start of a dream come true except for the fact that the tsar is possessed by a fiery demon. For several chapters, the three women continue on their more-or-less magical paths, until they start to scheme their way out of their predicaments. Unlike other books with multiple narrators, I found all of the stories equally enthralling—maybe because I was busy trying to spot the fairy tales Novik was playing around with.

The themes of value and cost come up over and over in this book. Miryem has to bargain with the Staryk king for answers to her questions. Irina has to bargain with the demon to stay alive. Unlike Irina and Miryem, Wanda has to learn that she has value beyond what she can earn with her labor, but she has the spirit to say no when she’s pushed into deals she doesn’t want to accept. Spinning Silver is satisfyingly feminist as these women refuse to just go along with what the men (and supernatural beings) in their lives want. This book had me cheering for the protagonists as they battled whatever high stakes, seemingly impossible challenges came their way.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 10 July 2018.

Swallowing Mercury, by Wioletta Greg

34146925The stories in Wioletta Greg’s Swallowing Mercury (translated by Eliza Marciniak into crisp British English) offer glimpses into the life of a girl coming of age in the last decade of communist Poland. In the small Silesian village of Herkaty, the larger world barely intrudes into the narrator’s world. There are only the slightest allusions to the Solidarity movement or shortages. The narrator’s family’s Catholic faith and folk medicine, as well as World War II, loom larger than anything that might be happening in the big cities.

Over the course of the stories in this collection, we see our narrator—also named Wioletta—transition from a blissfully clueless child who captures may flies and cries over a lost cat to a tough young woman who has learned to turn her hand to any occupation that might earn the family money and get out of situations with overly amorous neighbors. (The stories in which Wioletta dodges sexual abuse may be triggering for some readers.) By the end of the collection, there is little joy or whimsy left in Wioletta.

One of the stories, “Masters of Scrap,” can be read as the collection in miniature. In this story, Wioletta and her classmates are given the task of collecting scrap metal from all over the town for their school. They start with the easy pickings before escalating to stealing useful bits from people’s houses and properties. In the end, they lose it all in a mishap with a cart, a quarry, and a friend in jeopardy. The story swiftly moves from good dutifulness to apathetic resignation.

“Unripe” affected me the most of all the stories. This story captures the sorrow Wioletta and her family feel after Wioletta’s father, Rysiu, dies of a heart attack. His death leaves a large emotional hole in the extended family. After returning from camp, our narrator reaches out to hold her father’s hand one more time and sees his life in flashes. These flashes show Wioletta how a life of hardship, physical labor, and war shaped Rysiu.

A reader might have expected “Neon Over Jupiter,” the last story, to include a sense of hopefulness. After all, coming of age narratives usually end with a sense of leaving the past behind to move into the bright future. This story has none of that. Instead, Wioletta is tempted to run away with her glue-huffing sort-of boyfriend before changing her mind when she sees him passed out at the bus stop. She ends up slouching home, back into the past.

By the end of this collection of short stories, I was left with an impression of a young girl who has learned to shift for herself in a little town without resources. I’ve been left with a melancholy impression of a dead end life for our narrator. We have no clue what Wioletta will do in her adult life. There are certainly few opportunities for anything other than a life of the hardscrabble poverty she, her parents, and her grandparents grew up with. Wioletta’s life can almost be read as a rebuke to the narrative of hope after decades of communist rule. Far away, things are happening that might make life better for Poles—but very little of those changes have touched our narrator’s life or the lives of the rural poor.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 12 September 2017.

Mischling, by Affinity Konar

I can understand why twins fascinate scientists. Watching them can reveal much about how personality develops, whether nature has more of an influence than nurture. But I feel for them, too. They’re children, not test subjects. At least, they shouldn’t be test subjects, which is what happens to Pearl and Stasha Zagorski in Affinity Konar’s troubling novel, Mischling. When the Zagorski family arrives at Auschwitz-Birkenau, they make a deal with Josef Mengele. In exchange for putting the twins in his “zoo,” he will spare the lives of the girls’ mother and grandfather.

While most novels with multiple protagonists have converging plots in which the protagonists join together to accomplish a goal or defeat an enemy, Mischling tells the story of two twins who grow further apart. At the beginning of the novel, Pearl and Stasha finish each other’s sentences and feel each other’s pain. They divide up the world so that one takes responsibility for remembering the past while the other is in charge of keeping hope for the future. But as Mengele’s experiments begin to take their toll, the girls’ different methods of coping with the twisted laboratory environment cause them to lose their close connection.

Stasha’s method of coping is to study Mengele and medicine, to become like the so-called doctors so that they might pass over the Zagorski sisters. Her delusion that she can understand Mengele and his people slowly detaches Stasha from the world—to the point where it’s clear she’s not living in quite the same reality as everyone else. Pearl, in contrast, becomes pragmatic and cynical. She lives in the zoo with her eyes wide open to Mengele’s lies and the cruelty around her. Near the end of the book, it’s clear that the girls have lost their connection as twins. Konar, for a long time, leaves the question of survival open so that I had to wonder if the twins would ever re-connect.

Mischling is one of the most disturbing pieces of Holocaust literature I’ve ever read. It provides a close look at what Mengele was up to in his laboratory at Auschwitz, which is chilling enough. But what really makes this book stand out is the way that we see how Mengele and the Nazis attacked the Zagorski twins’ minds. It wasn’t enough for them to conduct pseudo-scientific experiments on their bodies. The pressures of living in the zoo, in the middle of a death camp, break the girls’ spirits in irreparable ways. They might survive technically, but they will always have a part of them that was lost forever.

 

Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis

In physics, the “arrow of time” is a metaphor for time and entropy first coined in 1927 by Arthur Eddington. Eddington wrote:

Let us draw an arrow arbitrarily. If as we follow the arrow we find more and more of the random element in the state of the world, then the arrow is pointing towards the future; if the random element decreases the arrow points towards the past…This follows at once if our fundamental contention is admitted that the introduction of randomness is the only thing which cannot be undone. I shall use the phrase ‘time’s arrow’ to express this one-way property of time which has no analogue in space. (Source)

This is true enough for reality as we understand it. Fiction, however, can do whatever the hell it wants. In Time’s Arrow, Martin Amis makes time run backwards from a man’s death to his birth. The narrator experiences the life of that man, Tod Friendly, backwards. For the narrator, it’s perfectly ordinary to see broken things repaired with a kick and chewed food returned whole to the plate. As the narrator travels back through Tod’s life, we learn the man’s secrets and discover a horror that is made all the worse because time is running in reverse.

We meet the narrator just at it discovers Tod. Tod has just returned to life after suffering a fatal coronary. The narrator is puzzled, just as we readers are, by the way the doctors fiddle with Tod by ripping out IVs and stuffing him back into his clothes before the paramedics whisk him away and deposit Tod back in his garden.

The narrator never twigs to the fact that time is running backwards, and why would it? It’s never experienced time any other way. So the narrator endures the discomfort of old age while Tod slowly grows younger. Relationships are particularly bewildering for the narrator, since they always start with fights, crying, and sex before a series of dates that end with Tod’s lover or girlfriend “pretending” not to know who Tod is.

For a long time, the narrator suffers as Tod practices as a physician. To the narrator’s point of view, doctoring is a ghastly profession:

Some guy comes in with a bandage around his head. We don’t mess about. We’ll soon have that off. He’s got a hole in his head. So what do we do? We stick a nail in it. Get the nail—a good rusty one—from the trash or wherever. And lead him out to the Waiting Room where he’s allowed to longer and holler for a while before we ferry him back out into the night. (76*)

According to the narrator, being a doctor involves hurting people while criminals can restore people to perfect health by punching them.

As Tod grows younger, the narrator notes that he sometimes changes his name. He moves back to the city from what we know to be his retirement home and changes his name. Then he sails to Europe and changes his name again. Then he travels to Italy and follows a series of trains to Poland and Germany, changing his name once more. In the last third of the book, we learn at least who Tod really is.

The last third of the book is also where the real horror begins. Because the narrator has been watching time in reverse (though it doesn’t realize it), it sees healing, care, then injury. When we learn that Tod used to be Odilo, an Austrian who worked as a doctor for the SS, the narrator believes that Odilo is reanimating dead people after creating them from mud and smoke. I have read a lot of Holocaust fiction, but the impact of all of these reversals hit me like a ton of bricks. I had to stop reading for a while just to process what was happening on the page.

Time’s Arrow is technically and emotionally brilliant. I knew about the backwards-time conceit before I picked it up, but I didn’t realize that Amis (who I’ve never read before) had the chops to actually make time run in reverse—instead of cheating and just writing the scenes out of chronological order. By turning time on its head, Time’s Arrow forces readers to reimagine the Holocaust and the crimes of Auschwitz because we simply have to think harder to first understand the narrator’s experience then parse out what’s really going on. It really is a work of genius.


* Quote is from the 1991 hardcover by Harmony Books.

Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys

Based around the real sinking of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, Ruta Sepetys’s novel, Salt to the Sea, is a quick-paced tale of strangers pushed together in straitened circumstances. All of them have secrets and agendas. All of them just want to get somewhere safe and wait for the war to end. The tension builds with every strafing from the Russian air force and every demand for papers from Wehrmacht soldiers. Sepetys makes the situation so dire for her protagonists that I honestly wondered if anyone would survive.

Salt to the Sea is told from four perspectives. One of the first narrators we meet is Florian, a man with a very dangerous secret and a gift for forgery. On his way from the Baltic states back to Germany (just before the beginning of Operation Hannibal, a staged evacuation from the eastern front), he meets Joana—a Lithuanian nurse—and Emilia—a pregnant Polish refugee—and their group. Joana does her best to keep everyone in their group healthy, but she’s up against near impossible odds. Emilia is a traumatized mess (justifiably, we learn), who has managed to put one foot in front of the other for longer than most people could have done. I was rooting so hard for all three of these characters.

The fourth voice comes from Alfred Frick, an officious coward who has wrangled a position in the Kriegsmarine in a low level and hopefully safe corner of the war. Unlike the other narrators, who tell their stories and experiences directly, Alfred is a very unreliable narrator due to his self-aggrandizing delusions. Most of his chapters take the form of letters he composes for a girl in Heidelberg. Even though I found the little twerp despicable, his chapters turned into a fascinating psychological portrait.

Salt to the Sea is a race. The chapters are often only a few paragraphs long. Some of them show the same events from the perspectives of the different narrators. I could easily see this book turned into a film. In fact, it almost played that way in my head. Sepetys also has a knack for slowly revealing the characters’ secrets in such a way that I felt like a detective piecing together little clues to get see the whole picture. Even though there’s death at almost every turn, I really enjoyed this book.

The Upright Heart, by Julia Ain-Krupa

I think authors write about the Holocaust and readers keep reading about the Holocaust because there is no coming to terms with a crime so massive, so damaging. Every novel is a fresh perspective on an event that will always shape humanity. That said, Julia Ain-Krupa’s The Upright Heart is one of the most unusual perspectives I’ve yet seen in Holocaust fiction. Instead of replicating history, this novel is a ghost story, with the dead place as much or more of a role than the living.

Even though The Upright Heart is a short novel, it is a meandering story. It opens in small down in Poland just after the end of World War II with a man who is late for work. Wiktor is running to his post when he is hit and killed by a train. Only then do we learn that Wiktor is our entré into a tangled story of unfinished business. Wiktor hops trains as a ghostly hobo until he comes across Wolf, who left their town for America just before the war with his new wife. Wolf was not in love with that wife. Even years later, he still pines for his lost love, non-Jewish Olga, who died in the Holocaust.

Over the course of The Upright Heart, Wolf is haunted, psychologically and literally, by Olga, their unborn child, and the ghosts of others who died during the war. Though Wiktor is our initial guide, he mostly disappears over the course of the book as other characters step forward to tell their stories. There isn’t an overarching plot, as such. Rather, this book is a puzzle for readers to work out. As the novel unfolds, we slowly learn how the characters are connected to each other and what they meant to each other when they were all alive. The Upright Hearkeeps moving on to new characters and I had to roll with the narrative, even though I wasn’t sure quite who I was supposed to be paying attention to.

Readers who prefer a more straightforward read may be frustrated by The Upright Heart. To be honest, I am one of those readers. This book never quite gelled for me and there were too much writerly fireworks for me to fully understand the story and its characters. But I do appreciate the chance that Ain-Krupa took in creating a ghost story about the Holocaust. At the beginning of the novel, when Wiktor runs across a squad of the ghosts of Wehrmacht soldiers, I was powerfully struck with the image that all of eastern Europe must be covered with the ghosts of World War II dead. It’s a wonder that the living can function when they must constantly run into the chill of past crimes.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 6 September 2016.

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

Every now and then, I get a book that has all the things I’ve wanted in an adventure. I end up devouring the book, staying up far too late, and then suffering from a book hangover for a while. Uprooted, by Naomi Novik, turned out to be just such a book for me, living up to all the praise I’ve heard about it since it was published last year. This book has Eastern European folklore, dire situations, daring chases and escapes, magical warfare, breathtaking villainy, redemption, and just a soupçon of love. Oh, how I loved this book!

Agnieszka is as surprised as anyone when the local wizard picks her for her his next servant/assistant. The wizard, known as the Dragon, keeps the Wood from taking over the valley where Agnieszka’s village and a number of other rural towns are located. The Wood has been waging mindless war on the people in this region of Polnya for longer than anyone can remember. Deadly pollens drive people mad and various creatures have been known to snatch people away, never to be seen again. Without the Dragon, everything Agnieszka knows would be destroyed within days. At one point, Agnieszka talks about the sinister forest:

I’d always hated the Wood, of course, but distantly. It had been a hailstorm before harvest, a swarm of locusts in the field; more horrible than those things, more like a nightmare, but still just acting according to its nature. Now it was something else entirely, a living thing deliberately reaching out the full force of its malice to hurt me, to hurt everyone I loved; looming over my entire village and ready to swallow it up just like Porosna. (181*)

Throughout the book, speeches like this and other descriptions of the Wood reminded me that Europe was, for centuries, covered in primeval forest—a forest that inspired many of the fairy tales we still tell today.

If Uprooted were pure fairy tale, ordinary life concerns would be glossed over and a magical thingie would be all Agnieszka needs to right all the wrongs the Wood has done. Uprooted is not that kind of story. For one, Agnieszka is always filthy. She can’t cook without ruining a dress and ending up with food in her hair. It drives the Dragon nuts. For another thing, Agnieszka’s magic, once she discovers it, is just as unruly as she is. Where the Dragon can summon magic with a careful phrase, Agnieszka’s involves singing magic words to old folk tunes, a few handfuls of herbs or rocks, and a certain amount of stubbornness. (She reminds me a lot of the witches from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, though Agnieszka doesn’t practice headology on people.) These flaws made me fall utterly in love with this character.

As the story rolls along, things get more complicated than just the Dragon and Agnieszka trying to hold off the Wood, mostly because Agnieszka refuses to take the fact that no one has done certain things before as a reason to not try. When representatives of the King of Polnya and one of the princes show up at the Dragon’s tower, everything goes to hell in short order. I was fascinated by the way that almost everything that the protagonists would do from the best of intentions would turn into disaster. I could follow their logic right back to the beginning and not find any flaw, yet still see how good intentions can be used against these characters when their enemy knows them so well.

In order to resolve all these conflicts, Agnieszka and the Dragon have to resort to some of my favorite tropes in folklore and fairy tales: extreme cleverness and a keen enough insight to see what the real problem is. Since Agnieszka is such an iconoclast when it comes to what people expect of her, she is the perfect person to figure out how to stop a messy, magical war before it claims even more lives.

I enjoyed Uprooted so much that I kind of regret borrowing it from the library, because I want a copy of my own that I can dive back into the story as often as I want.


* Quote is from the 2015 Random House kindle edition.

 

 

Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz, by Maxim Biller

What would the inside of a writer’s mind look like? I’ve had this thought before, usually about mystery writers. But I’ve seen anyone write the answer to that question until I read Maxim Biller’s brief novella, Inside the Head of Bruno SchulzSchulz was an actual writer. He was killed by a Nazi outside of the Drohobycz ghetto in 1942. Only a few of his works were published before his death. (One of his stories, “Cinnamon Shops,” is reproduced in this volume.) Schulz’ work shows a strong streak of surrealism and, in the two stories included in this edition of Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz by Puskhin Press, feature characters are obsessed with something to the point of dissociation from what’s happening in the world around them.

It’s fitting, then, that Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz follows the same pattern. Schulz in the novella is writing a letter to Thomas Mann, to let the Nobel winning author know that an imposter-Mann has turned up in Drohobycz. This imposter is gauche, violent, and thoroughly spoiling Mann’s reputation. He’s not well, in any sense. Schulz’ loose grip on reality makes it hard to understand what’s really happening. As Schulz writes, he is occasionally distracted by his sister, birds at his skylight, and the voices of children—which appear to becoming from a pair of birds on the desk.

There isn’t much plot to Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz. What action there is comes from episodes Schulz (as character) puts in his letter to Thomas Mann. Again, it’s hard to know if the things Schulz saw really happened, or happened the way he said they did. I suppose this is fitting for a psychological exploration inside the mind of a surrealist.

I did read the two stories included in this volume, “Birds” and “Cinnamon Shops.” Only after I read these stories did I understand (a little better, anyway) what Biller was up to. In “Birds,” the father of the family keeps exotic birds in the family attic, obsessing over them while missing everything that’s going on around him. Eventually, his daughter retaliates by releasing all the birds. The old man is shattered. Reading this right after Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz, I pictured an author who wants to dream his dreams. The war and the Holocaust made it impossible for Schulz (the character, not the man himself) to either stay in his world or to stay in that world and keep his sanity.

This is a very unsettling collection of stories.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 13 October 2015.

A Possible Life, by Sebastian Faulks

Novels like The Years of Rice and Salt and The Incarnations use an idea that I think is relatively new in the world of fiction. In those novels, souls (or whatever you care to call them) are constantly reborn to learn something or perfect themselves. The souls are often accompanied by other souls down through the centuries. When I read the description of A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts, by Sebastian Faulks, I was expecting something similar. That’s not what I got, exactly. There are hints that the five narrators are connected (sometimes they share memories), this is not a novel about reincarnation. I’m still not sure what this book is about.

A Possible Life is a novel that breaks one of the cardinal rules of fiction. Even if you’re not a writer, you’ve probably heard of “show, don’t tell.” A Possible Life is all tell. In each section, we get a small biography of a character. We’re left to figure out how five people in four countries in three different centuries are connected to each other.

The first biography is of Geoffrey Talbot, a British schoolteacher who abruptly runs out of luck in France in 1943. Talbot started off as a hapless officer before parlaying his ability to speak French and keep secrets into a career in espionage. In 1943, he is captured and sent to an unnamed concentration camp. He barely escapes. Physically, he escapes. Mentally, Talbot is even more of a hermit than he was before the war. Of the five characters, Talbot is the most self-isolating.

Faulks then whisks us back to Victorian England. Billy Webb was the unlucky sibling who went to the workhouse when their parents could no longer afford to feed all of them. In his teens, Webb gets out of the workhouse and slowly claws his way up from day labor to sign hanger to landlord. He finds love. He builds a family. His life turns out to be a good one.

The next capsule biography takes us into the near future. Elena Duranti is another person who stays away from people. Unlike Talbot, she does not drift through life and let relationships slide through her fingers. She pushes them away so that she can learn as much as possible. She resents her parents when they adopt a boy they dub Bruno, but the two eventually grow so close that they understand each other like no one else. Duranti advances at university, eventually discovering the mechanism in the brain that makes it possible for humans to think about their thinking—something that sets us apart from other species. This section bothered me because the tone of the chapter implied that all of Duranti’s intellectual achievements won’t make up for not having a family, children.

The penultimate chapter is the shortest and the strangest. Jeanne, called Mole by the children she helped raise, is a woman who doesn’t have a past. She works for a local bourgeoisie with pretentions to be a philosopher. No one falls in love with her. Her children are borrowed from a neurotic woman and eventually grow away from her. No one knows where she came from. We learn a little bit about her life before she became a maid-of-all-work and nanny around 1822 in the French countryside. She was a laundress before her religious convictions turned out to be placed in the wrong monk. At least, I think that’s what happened.

The last chapter is narrated by Jack, a former rockstar bidding his time between gigs, but is named for the woman Jack falls in love with. Anya King is a singer-songwriter who can make magic with her songs. She’s hypnotic and Jack is completely gone after meeting her. We see Anya’s career take off and their relationship change from mentor-mentee to manager-artist to lovers in a short time. When Anya leaves, Jack is devastated. He never really gets over her.

Every time I tried to find the connection between the five characters, some fact from the stories would through it out. Four out of five of the characters have dysfunctional relationships. Billy Webb has two wives (not concurrently, exactly) and they have very loving relationships. Three of the five characters overlap chronologically, so my reincarnation theory is out the window. As I wrote yesterday, I’m not at all sure what this book is trying to tell me. I think I need to ruminate on it some more.

If anyone knows of an author interview where Faulks explains A Possible Life, DO NOT SEND IT TO ME. Reading an interview to get the author’s intention is cheating.

Jacob the Liar, by Jurek Becker

Is there such a thing as a good lie? Whenever this question comes up, I imagine that most people can agree that white lies are fine. Without them, we’d probably be perpetually annoyed with one another. But when the lies get bigger, it becomes harder and harder to say if a lie is justified—a “good” lie—or not. Jacob Heym, the unwitting hero of Jurek Becker’s Jacob the Liar, wasn’t thinking about whether his lie was a good one or not when he told it. Jacob’s lie just slipped out. But his lie changed the lives of hundreds in the Łódź ghetto in the last year of the war.

Jacob’s story is told by an unnamed narrator, who actually meets Jacob after the events of this novel. Throughout the book, the narrator is careful to establish his bona fides by telling his audience that he tracked down witnesses or pointing out where his knowledge ends and he has to start inventing. Jacob’s career begins with dumb luck. He is caught just before curfew by German sentries and sent to the gestapo offices. There, he overhears a radio broadcast announcing that the Russian army is within 200 miles of Łódź. The man Jacob is supposed to report to send Jacob back to the ghetto with a warning. The next morning, Jacob shares the news with a man who works with him in the freight yard. Rather than actually telling Mischa how he found out about the Russians, he blurts out that he as a radio. And because no one can actually keep a secret, the news spreads across the ghetto. Before long, Jacob is being pestered by people for more news.

Jacob is not just an unwitting hero. He’s a very reluctant hero. He’s prickly and quick to anger over what others see as trifles. He wasn’t much before the war—just a seller of latkes and ice cream and lemonade. He’s not much in the ghetto, either. He takes care of an orphaned girl and works in the freight yard. At least, that’s what he is on the surface. The narrator makes a point of telling us late in the novel about one of Jacob’s friends, Kowalsky, who:

He went [to Jacob’s shop to talk to him] because afterward the world looked just a bit rosier, because Jacob could say something like “Chin up” or “Things are going to be all right,” with just a bit more conviction than other people. (290*)

Jacob, unlike anyone else in the ghetto, can keep hope alive in these desperate circumstances. For some reason, people believe this man, instead of dismissing his news as lies or his comforting words as platitudes. At one point, another of Jacob’s friends warns him to get rid of his radio (no one else is in on the lie) because it will put everyone in danger if the Germans get wind of it. Jacob replies:

Isn’t it enough for you that we have almost nothing to eat, that in winter one in five of us freezes to death, that every day half a street gets taken away in transports? All that still isn’t enough? And when I try to make use of the very last possibility that keeps them from just lying down and dying — with words, do you understand? I try to do that with words! Because that’s all I have! — then you come and tell me it’s prohibited!…Since the news has been passed around in the ghetto, I haven’t heard of a single suicide. Have you? (222-223)

It’s dangerous and foolhardy and based on a lie, but hope is keeping the rest of the ghetto from despair. Jacob is keeping the rest of the ghetto from despair.

bundesarchiv_bild_137-051639a2c_polen2c_ghetto_litzmannstadt2c_deportation

Jews entering in the Łódź ghetto

At times, Becker’s narrator shifts from “I” to a loose “We,” speaking for the whole ghetto or speaking in the voices of members of the ghetto. At times, the narrator speaks as Jacob himself, pondering about the latke-seller’s motives. The “You” changes from an address to the reader to various characters in the book to unidentified targets. The narrator is very aware that the story is constructed. In fact, the narrator gives us a choice of an alternate, happy ending rather than the actual dark ending of the inhabitants of the Łódź ghetto.

The narrator’s awareness of the story as a construction allows the narrator to play with the forms of the novel and story, especially by creating confusion about who is speaking or what actually happened. Some readers will hate this, especially the ambiguity-averse. But I think the deliberate blurring of voices makes this novel more powerful than it might have been if it had just focused on Jacob. By giving voice to more characters, the narrator (and Becker) remind us that the Holocaust silenced so many. Their voices should be a cacophony. For the most part, Holocaust literature elevates a few individuals above the rest to humanize the history. We can’t imagine the loss of millions, but we can wrap our brains around the loss of individuals. Jacob the Liar, however, reminds us that there should be millions more voices in the world where there is only a gaping, deafening silence.


* Quotes are from the 2012 edition by Arcade Publishing, translated by Leila Vennewitz, and made available as an ebook on Scribd.