I know, I know, the number of times I’ve said, don’t choose a book because of the cover, but what can I say? This cover definitely drew me in; there’s something very haunting in the directness of her stare.
‘Rumors spread by the Camp’s inmates, other Nazi officers, and the Kommandant’s own family insist that she was his “mistress”, but was she, voluntarily? Told from three different perspectives – that of the formerly idealistic Kommandant, the young Jewish inmate who captivates him, and the ostensibly objective historical biographies of the protagonists – this novel examines one troubling moral question over and over: if your staying alive was the only “good” during the War, if your survival was your sole purpose in this horrific world of the Concentration Camps – whether you were Nazi or Jewish – what, exactly, would you do to survive? Would you lie, cheat, steal, kill, submit?’
The book is in three parts. Part one is told from the Kommandant’s point of view; the second, from the Jewish inmate’s; and the third part is the biography of both characters, giving the book the feel of a work of non-fiction.
This story is not an easy read, due to the subject matter. It takes place in a concentration camp where the Kommandant lives with his wife, young daughter and toddler son. What an awful place to bring up a young family; there’s no escaping the stench from the ovens, an offensive term for horrific instruments of death.
I’m a firm believer that people are not born racists. Which made it incredibly disturbing to hear the Kommandant’s daughter spouting hatred of the Jews and coaxing her little brother to say the same. Each time, I wondered if she understood what she was saying or was she simply parroting what she’d heard the adults say. But there were still moments when they behaved like the innocent children they were the few times they interacted with the young Jewish woman in their father’s office.
The young Jewish inmate. We’re told her name is Rachel. She wasn’t kept with the others. Because the Kommandant was besotted with her, he kept her as his sexual slave; in his office, which was in the house where his family lived.
And therein lies that question – in such awful circumstances, what would you be willing to do to survive? From the perspective of our comfortable, safe lives, who are we to judge what sacrifices a person is willing to make to survive?
Ms Szeman has told this story in a unique, interesting style. The narration isn’t linear; instead, it flashes back and forth, from the present to the past to further in the past and back again. To be honest, I was worried I’d struggle with it, but it didn’t take me long to settle into the story. I think what made it easy to follow, in my opinion, was the first-person point of view. For me, it felt like I was listening to them tell me their story. And when people tell things from memory, they never tell it chronologically.
What I found clever was the way Ms Szeman used words or phrases to link events and memories, flowing from the present to the past. In this excerpt, the Kommandant, Max, is in the present, after the war, trying to find the author of a book, but he doesn’t know her name. The Red Cross worker suggests writing to the publisher:
‘“We could write to the publisher.”
“What good would that do?”
“We could ask for the author’s address. Of course, if there’s no name on it, I don’t see that we’re going to get very far.”
“How far do you think we could get?”
“Far away,” said Marta. “As far away as possible. We’ve got to get far away from here, Max. You could write to my aunt’s husband. Maybe he could help us.”
“Help us what?” I said.
“Help us get out of this dreadful place,” said Marta.’
The section with Marta, Max’s wife, takes place in the past, during the war.
The first-person narrative gives the story an almost uncomfortable intimacy. I didn’t want to go so deep into Max’s mind. Any sympathy I may have felt dissipated with each interaction he had with his wife, Marta, and with Rachel, even with his children.
Rachel’s story, on the other hand, drew me in very quickly, and not only because she was a woman and I already knew some of what she’d suffered. As someone who’s very into history, it was the parts of her story before she and her parents were taken to the camp that caught my attention. Instead of reading dry facts about the atrocities the Jews suffered, witnessing it from Rachel’s point of view gave it an extra layer of poignancy, of frustrated hopelessness.
Ms Szeman doesn’t cushion the impact of what the Jews were made to suffer at the camps. But she doesn’t beat you about the head with it either. It’s written in such a straightforward way, a few times I ended up doing a double take, re-reading passages before the complete wickedness hit me.
The three different parts leave you with, in effect, three different endings. To begin with, that left me stumped as I’m used to ending with ‘the end’; it’s what we’ve become used to, I guess. The more I thought about it, though, I don’t think this book could have finished with a neat ‘the end’. We’ve basically got two people remembering overlapping events but who experienced those same events very differently; their respective stories are not going to be the same. And their biographies are going to be different again because the biographer only had impersonal facts to work from, not the intangible ‘stuff’ that infuses a person’s story to make it unique, which gives it life.
This is not the sort of book you can whizz through in a weekend. It requires commitment, not only because of the distressing subject but also because of the style in which it's written. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I believe the only way you can get the full impact of the story is to immerse yourself fully in the stories of the Kommandant and his mistress.