17.2.14

Chil Rajchman - Treblinka

Rating 8.0

Jean 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.

The lack of barracks and factories in this reconstruction of Treblinka shows how the lager was never intended to be a lager camp, but only a facility to exterminate people as quickly as possible

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 ia 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.

To cheat and reassure the people brought to the extermination camp by train only to be gassed in a few minutes, the Nazis made up a mock railway station with a fake ticket office
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 (the insanity of evil?), 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.

Railway tracks of the divertion leading to the camp and cutting through the woods are one of the few signs of Treblinka's existence today. 
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 from the very 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.


7.2.14

George Saunders - Tenth of December

Rating 7.2

If you look back at the umpteen articles, pieces and features listing the best books of 2013 on pretty much any given newspaper, magazine and literary review around you might notice one thing.
And it's this:
Tenth of December by George Saunders is all over the place.

Actually, I challenge you to find one of such end of the year lists not naming and praising this book at some point. Please do.

George Saunders, sure! That same George Saunders who wrote…

Hey, wait a moment. George who? Saunders who?
I wandered and rummaged through the shaky bookshelves of my mind palace (which is actually more of a garret) but nothing. Not a clue. Not a title. Not a mention. Not a recommendation. The truth is that I had never heard of this guy before.

Now, if you're American and/or a strong reader of short stories you might find my ignorance on Saunders outrageous. After all, Mr Saunders has been publishing fiction as well as essays for eighteen years and brought home a nice tray of literary prizes in the meantime including four National Magazine Awards, a World Fantasy Award and a PEN/Malamud Award.
Well, that's it: as far as literary critics are concerned, this author is a prodigy. A quick browsing of the Net taught me that Mr Saunders studied literature with Tobias Wolff (good!), was a friend of David Foster Wallace (mmmh) and that his work has been compared to the one by Kurt Vonnegut (excellent!).

Ok, then. I bought the first paperback edition of Tenth of December, this latest collection of short stories by George Saunders and prepared myself to get at once mesmerized, awestruck and blown away.
But you know what? Even though no less than Jon McGregor (Jon who?) claimed that 'these stories are so good that they make me want to punch myself in the face with delight', I read my way all through this book ending up without a single bruise.
And if self-inflicting a volley of jabs at my face would have been a debatable way to express my enthusiasm for the literary gifts of Mr Saunders, I could have at least pinched my cheeks once or twice in disbelief for having found Kurt Vonnegut's legitimate heir.

Unfortunately, no cheeks were pinched and old Kurt left no scion. If Tenth of December didn't make it to my own and humble best books of 2013 list it's because I read it too late, but I can already say that the chances this short stories collection will rank among my favourte readings on 2014 are minimal.

Understand, George Saunders could be such a brilliant writer. And sometimes he really is. In fact, three of the ten stories you'll find in Tenth of December are no less than spectacular. Still 3 out of 10, doesn't make a great percentage. Had this book included only Victory Lap, Escape from Spiderhead and The Semplica Girl Diaries I would consider it a masterpiece of creative, imaginative and truly original short story writing. But had Mr Saunders left out the other seven short stories published within this collection (including the one entitling it), the book would have counted a mere 120 pages.

Courtesy of The New Yorker

I'm not sure I quite understand all the hype around Saunders. And I definitely don't get that odd comparison with Kurt Vonnegut. What I can say is that I've found more than a similarity between George Saunders and John Jeremiah Sullivan, the author of Pulphead, another book that made it into many a best of 2012/2013 lists. True, whereas Sullivan wrote essays, Saunders here deals with fiction. And yet, it's interesting how most of Sullivan's acrobatic gonzo features look more like pieces of fiction to me than many short stories by Saunders.

This is actually where George Saunders does shine more than once. He deftly crafts short stories where every single tile seems to fit in the picture, but then a single out of place tessera does show you that the whole thing was a clever puzzle of verisimilitude. I believe that The Semplica Girl Diary is by far the best example of this technique and I'm not surprised it took its author years to finish those 60 pages.
To be fair with Saunders he's also extremely good in putting himself not only in the shoes but in the thoughts of a vast array of characters sounding totally convincing and believable whenever he does that and especially in Victory Lap. 

What a pity, then, that a few short stories here - such as My Chivalric Fiasco and Exhortation - are absolutely forgettable while others (Sticks, Puppy) didn't get me hooked as they could. As for the finale of Tenth of December, the tenth installment of this collection and the jewel of the crown here according to plenty of reviewers, my impression is that there has been much ado about nothing that special.
  

1.2.14

Guy Delisle - Pyongyang

Rating 6.8

I'm ambivalent towards graphic novels.
On the one hand, they're at the same time a quick and a deep reading/visual experience depending on how much you want to focus on details. On the other hand, these books are bound to be extremely subjective as the author not only writes but draws what they saw and felt and thought.

This means that I'm likely to be picky in choosing a graphic novel and rather fussy in reviewing it.
As I cannot draw anything real (and struggle with abstractism too), my delight or my disappointment in leafing through a graphic novel are those of a strong reader and a lazy journalist.

All that said, the name of Guy Delisle was not unknown to me and it was in fact a long time I wished to give him a chance.
So, did I like 'Pyongyang'? Yes and no. Let's call it a draw.

What I've certainly appreciated here is that the book taught me something. I didn't know that the animation industry of the Western world relied on outsourcing as much as, say, the automotive and the textile sectors. The fact that 90% of the people involved in the production of a French cartoon actually are North Koreans working in North Korea and supervised by a Western 'chief animator' was a revelation.


Guy Delisle was that supervisor. And here he doesn't pretend not to be aware of his role thus wearing a coat of white male superiority that might either irritate or amuse the reader. In the two months Delisle spent in the North Korea he barely left his secluded exclusive hotel spending most of his spare time partying and dining with foreigners. Nevertheless, he observes, criticises and often pokes fun at the few North Koreans he's allowed to meet.
This superiority business is particularly irritating as it dismisses local culture as silly and uncouth when compared to the excellent music and literary tastes Delisle boasts to have sporting his Orwell, Aphex Twin and Daft Punk.
True, all North Koreans are brainwashed to a level and to such an extent that they cannot even choose what's good and what's bad, what rocks and what sucks. But they have other priorities such as surviving in a totalitarian regime, gathering food and avoiding purges.


 Well, Guy Delisle doesn't seem to care that much about all this here. And yet, I believe that he does care and does know about North Korea and North Koreans more that he writes and draws in 'Pyongyang'. To me, Delisle chose not to focus on the bleak part of the country (with a few exceptions) as he was well aware that the two months he spent in the North Korean capital closely surveilled by the local authorities would have never made him an expert on a whole country; thus, his lighthearted style.

If you want to read (and learn) about North Korea, Pyongyang and the North Korean regime go and take the excellent Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick.
But if you're interested in the musings of a Canadian cartoonist wondering and wandering around the most inaccessible - to this day - country in the world, than this is the book to get. There are plenty of funny and well chiselled moments in 'Pyongyang' and it's always a pleasure discovering things through a clever smile.