Jean Amery, Tadeusz Borowski, Imre Kertesz, Primo Levi, Boris Pahor, Elie Wiesel…
The list of authors who survived Nazi concentration and extermination...moreJean Amery, Tadeusz Borowski, Imre Kertesz, Primo Levi, Boris Pahor, Elie Wiesel…
The list of authors who survived Nazi concentration and extermination camps finding the strength to tell the world about them could have been longer. Had beautiful minds such as Janusz Korczak, Irene Nemirovsky and Antal Szerb not been among those drowned by the Holocaust, we could have had more masterful first hand accounts on the atrocities perpetrated in the lagers. And who knows how many strikingly important diaries and memories were shattered and burned.
For sixty-five years Chil Rajchman's memoirs were not included in any bibliography about the Holocaust. In fact, they were not even published and were kept in a drawer somewhere between the US and Uruguay where Rajchman died in 2004. Then someone opened that drawer, read those Yiddish written pages and translated them into French. It is likely that what had happened a few years ago with the notebooks of Irene Nemirovsky being rediscovered and becoming an international bestseller played a part in this process.
However, it must be stressed out that whereas Nemirovsky's unfinished 'Suite Française' was a work of fiction (even though deeply interconnected with history in its making), Rajchman's writings deal with the darkest reality human beings could find themselves in.
Rajchman doesn't tell us who he was, what he was doing, how he was taken and put on a cattle waggon on October 1942. What the author tells us is where he was brought: Treblinka. Now, there are still many former Nazi concentration camps which can be visited nowadays. I've only been to Dachau that was the first KZ (Konzentrationlager) the Nazis converted into a death gearwheel and that visit still haunts me. Even though I'll never stop looking for Holocaust and concentration camps related diaries, memoirs, poems and - to some extent - novels, I don't feel like visiting another lager. The wickedness I perceived in Dachau was more than enough.
And yet, if I wanted to pull myself together to go and see the horrors of Treblinka, I would find no barbed wires, no iron gates, no turrets, no barracks, no gas chambers, no crematories. What I'd see is just an ample clearing in a thick forest with a few stone memorials dotting the barren landscape. Unlike Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen Belsen, Majdanek and Sachsenhausen which were called 'concentration' or even 'labor' camps where Jewish and non Jewish prisoners had to work themselves to death, Treblinka (and Belzec, Sobibor, Chelmno) was an extermination camp.
Whereas luck, physical strength, inner determination and sometimes scheming could keep you alive in a concentration lager, you had no chances to survive in an extermination camp. 99% of those who arrived to Treblinka were killed within a few hours. And this is the reason why the Nazis were so eager to leave no visible trace of such a hell on Earth. Before leaving Treblinka behind, the executioners meticolously razed the whole camp to the ground, burning hundreds of thousands of bodies and crushing their charred bones with bulldozers. They had the mass graves filled with soil and planted them with lupins. I don't know why the Nazis bothered to cover all that up, but it's a fact that no extermination camp in Poland was left behind untouched.
Chil Rajchman was among those few Jews who were left alive by the executioners to put the evil doings under the carpet. And he spares no unpleasant detail of what he had to do to survive in Treblinka. Cutting the hair of thousands of women on their way to the gas chambers, bringing out the dead bodies, putting corpses into deep graves and covering them with lime, extracting gold teeth and eventually destroying any proof of a gigantic methodical massacre.
As you might have understood this is an extremely difficult book to read through. Rajchman doesn't let you take a single breather and never hides his hatred for the Nazi executioners around him. At a first glance, the author doesn't show any hint of hope for his future, but looking between and beyond the sharp lines he left us, the anger and desperation of Rajchman gradually turn into the willingness to fight back. And that's what eventually happens with the prisoners planning an uprising within the camp leading to Chil Rajchman and others managing to escape from Treblinka.
'Treblinka - A Survivor's Memory' is an extraordinary document on human evilness taken from the bottom of the abyss it could lead us to and - at the same time - an exceptional story of human resilience that everyone might be aware of. (less)
On The Vicissitudes of the Dream Life of Sukhanov.
In the beginning it was fire...
I've rescued this book from a mouldy crate (which once contained Port...moreOn The Vicissitudes of the Dream Life of Sukhanov.
In the beginning it was fire...
I've rescued this book from a mouldy crate (which once contained Portuguese tangerines) left on the floor of a firemen station in a provincial English town on a placid Saturday afternoon of early May. The first novel by Olga Grushin was lying on her meek ivory back crushed beneath a pile of heavy-weighted low-browed gaudy rubbish labeled Sophie Kinsella, Danielle Steel and E.L. James.
(BBC Oxford set the mood broadcasting 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' by Bonnie Tyler)
The local firemen were sipping cups of tea wrapped up in their fluorescent-striped uniforms chatting amiably with elderly bystanders and enjoying their charity event. They couldn't save The Dream Life of Sukhanov. And no one of the reluctant book-scourers of Abingdon-on-Thames had the keen eye or the noble heart needed to pick up this gem of a novel. What they did, little by little, was making room for The Dream Life of Sukhanov by taking the aforementioned Kinsella, Steele and James away.
(BBC Oxford adjusted their standards by switching to 'Ring of Fire' by Johnny Cash)
Thus, I was able to spot the novel, lift it up and - taken by a sudden impulse - decide to save it from oblivion and bring it home, across the street. It costed me one quid. Sgt. Sam Fireman said: 'thanks, mate'.
You may be surprised to know that I had never heard of Olga Grushin before.
However, put a nice sketch of the Red Square in Moscow on the cover as well as a line stating 'shortlisted for the orange award for new writers 2006' and a broad spectrum of praise from Vogue (do they know books?) to The Financial Times (do they care about books?) and that's it: you buy me. What I thought is this: in the worst case scenario - say, if this is going to be awful cheap Russian-flavoured crap like 'Snowdrops' - I will have good fun in writing an evil review smashing this novel to bits. But if the novel proves to be good, that would be almost better than being sarcastic about it.
And then came water...
It happened that the very same night my partner in life and in book-rescuing were invited to a social gathering involving the making and baking of a half-dozen pizzas, multilingual chatting and the occasional warm beer. You know, we're not exactly the Oxford University Ball types. Falling hopelessly drunk in a college quadrangle blabbering obscenities in Latin is not our idea of entertainment. Or not anymore.
Anyway, what matters here is that I put 'The Dream Life of Sukhanov' in my rucksack so that I could have something to read on the bus (my partner abhors noise on the public transport and wears fancy earplugs which do not encourage conversation). And that's when I begin to understand that this novel was stunning. A few pages were enough to make me realise that Olga Grushin likes adjectives but does have talent.
I left a postcard from Lisbon (a homage to those Portuguese tangerines) as a bookmark between page 16 and 17 and left the bus with my partner to reach our social gathering. We wanted to walk a bit. The problem is that we didn't expect a deluge to welcome us in Oxford.
It took us half an hour to reach our destination where our friends had already started to make dough, warm up the ovens and assemble the ingredients for the pizza bonanza. We were desperately wet but beastly hungry and after fishing bottles of beers from my rucksack, I forgot to check what happened to The Dream Life of Sukhanov.
We baked. We ate. We chatted. We drank. We said goodnight see you later guys. My partner and I left.
Back home - despite the late hour - I spent twenty minutes hair-drying my freshly rescued book page after page. The first novel by Olga Grushin took so much water that its last 80 pages were like a single thick plank of plywood. The Red Square was flooded beyond recognition. Only the faintest outlines of Saint Basil and the Kremlin were still there.
(I hope my neighbours have forgiven me for the noise. If you meet them, say sorry on my behalf and tell them that the hair-dryer bit wasn't a song by Kraftwerk and was for a good cause).
Ok, to cut a long story short, I am glad to tell you that The Dream Life of Sukhanov survived the deluge. The Red Square is back on dry soil. One can actually leaf through each of the last 80 pages. Luckily.
In short. Go, fetch this book. It is truly exquisite.
It doesn't have much of a plot but it's masterfully written. It includes some of the best pages about art which I've ever read (not that I'm an expert, but still). There are sentences which are worth of Nabokov and others which would have pleased Bulgakov. Believe me.
The likes and works of Chagall, Dalì, Rublev are here. Moscow in the mid-1980s is here. The moral miseries and sour memories of a privileged man - Tolya Sukhanov, you bet - are here. Some interesting literary experiments in switching from the first to the third person narrator (and back, and back again!) are here. Beauty is here.
Just keep this novel in a dry place, please.(less)
The Britain observed by V.V Ovchinnikov dates back to the end of the 1970s. And the cover of this book with its Pacman-like graphic and the "O" of "ob...moreThe Britain observed by V.V Ovchinnikov dates back to the end of the 1970s. And the cover of this book with its Pacman-like graphic and the "O" of "observed" shaped as the Soviet sickle & hammer tells you something more on the odd anachronism of reading it on 2012.
However, I have to admit that Mr Ovchinnikov wrote a pretty good little book on Great Britain (plus Eire and Northern Ireland). The kind of observations the former correspondent of Pravda does here are somehow between a tourist guide of the 1950s and what an author like the Italian journalist Beppe Severgnini wrote about Britain and the Britons in the 1990s selling an awful lot of books.
Here you can find many clever but old-aged notes on the British way of life as it was 25 years ago but also plenty of observations which are still valid nowadays. The only downwards of Ovchinnikov's work is that he had the weird tendency to compare the UK with Japan and China where he spent years as a correspondent before being sent to London. And sometimes he even states the Britons and Japanese are similar. Oh well, that's news!
That said, the good part of this book is that its author never indulges on the Soviet superiority over the UK, poking fun at Britons sometimes but always stressing out how their way of, say, washing dishes without using running water is a cultural difference rather than a barbarian act. I think that, in this aspect, "Britain Observed" reflects the period in which it was written with the glasnost at the door and a Soviet Union no longer under the unbearable rhetoric and political influence of Lenin and then Stalin.
Vsevolod Ovchinnikov doesn't have the wit of Ilf & Petrov who themselves wrote a marvelous account of a visit to the US in the 1930s but - at the same time - was never asked to wrote an elegy on a canal dedicated to Lenin as happened to the comic duo. I don't know what this guy was writing as a correspondent from London for the Pravda and how much freedom he enjoyed in his articles, but "Britain Observed" has a very relaxed and pleasantly ironic tone without doing any annoying proselytism. This is what I call well-documented escapism and I'm not surprised that the book, with its Russian-Soviet title meaning "The Roots of an Oak-Tree" (?), sold well in the USSR. At least that's what the cover of my British edition says.
Check for the chapters on the British politics and you will be surprised on how good Ovchinnikov is in describing how the English parliament works. Given his training at home with the elephantine structure of Soviet government, I assume the author had no problems at all in grasping the mechanisms of the UK democracy.
All in all, this book stands out as an interesting historic document including many brilliant observations on the UK provided from an unusual half-communist point of view with such funny oddities like Ovchinnikov touring Ireland following the steps of Engels. (less)
Vladimir Nabokov is one of those geniuses I always felt somehow uneasy about. What I knew about him? Very little.
During his literary career, Nabokov w...moreVladimir Nabokov is one of those geniuses I always felt somehow uneasy about. What I knew about him? Very little.
During his literary career, Nabokov wrote ten novels in Russian, nine in English together with hundreds of short stories and poems. And what I had read of all this astonishing production? Just two things. "Lolita", of course (and quite late) together with "The Eye" (and too soon).
That said, I came across this self-biography after finding out somewhere that this is one of the best self-biographies ever written or something. Which is partly true.
On the one hand "Speak, Memory" gives the utter confirmation that Nabokov was a peculiar character with whom it was probably quite uneasy to deal with. In these 15 plus one chapters recounting his early life in Russia and then the time he spent as an ex-pat in the UK, France and Germany after the Bolshevik revolution, Nabokov is often so self-satisfied about his childhood and young adult years to be almost unbearable.
A whole chapter, say, is dedicated to the heraldry of the Nabokoff/Nabokov family explaining who was who and whom married whom since the 18th century with a sort of elegy of patronymics and pointing out the powerful connections Vladimir's ancestry had with the Russian and Central European peerage. Moreover, Nabokov is not afraid to tell us his little absurd idiosyncrasies which show a certain amount of snobbery like when he admits that he cannot stand sleeping because everybody does it and it's a waste or productive time or when he blame either Cambridge University life or those who cannot get the importance of his butterfly-cataloging hobby.
Nevertheless, or perhaps because of this unusual attitude towards his readers, this book is rather interesting and unique. One can discover a lot of amazing tiny details about Nabokov here. We may think this man was a genius incapable of looking at mundane business and daily activities, but this wouldn't be accurate. For Vladimir Nabokov enjoyed not only hunting high and low the fields of Crimea, Cambridgeshire and Massachusetts in search of an unknown sub-specie of Polyommatus butterfly or creating chess puzzles for the grandmasters, but also playing tennis and standing between the posts on a football pitch practicing the noble art of goalkeeping.
By reading "Speak, Memory" we meet a grand writer and rather isolated person, but also a very sensitive human being who is not afraid of telling us about his own problems in relating with his brothers and fellow students, failures in love, illusions and disillusions. It's true how Nabokov lingers a bit too much on certain unimportant issues, but he was probably one of the few who could do it with an excellent writing style and without being reproached to get over himself. This is not a complete self-biography dealing only with the first 40 years of Nabokov life and leaving out the most successful part of his existence as an author, but it's a fascinating reading, family heraldry apart. (less)
This fellow named Astasjev attended to the very first meeting I had with Nina Berberova.
It was nice hanging out with Nina in Paris. I love the way she...moreThis fellow named Astasjev attended to the very first meeting I had with Nina Berberova.
It was nice hanging out with Nina in Paris. I love the way she speaks. And I really like the places where she took me and the Russian ex-pats circle she introduced me in. The only problem is that, during the awesome time we spent together, Nina was caring far too much about that fellow, Astasjev. Come on! He is a bastard. Nina knows it. I know it. You will read.
I really hope me and Nina will meet each other once again pretty soon. How could I live without her for so long time?(less)