I have long fantasised about leaving the UK, but it wasn’t until recently that I seriously considered the prospect. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago I took a trip to Prague, my favourite city, in order to feel the place as someone looking to live there [which obviously involves a different mind-set from that of someone going there on holiday]. To this end, I made an effort to speak to locals, of course, but focussed my attention on those who had moved from elsewhere. As you would expect, there is a healthy ex-pat community; and what I found is that many of these people were damaged in some way, were running from something [even if only themselves], just as I am and would be. Yet many of them still seemed to yearn for ‘the old country,’ without, it seemed, having any intention of actually returning there. And as I sat in various bars talking to these people, I started to wonder how I would feel, years from now, as an ex-pat myself. Would I begin to view the place of my birth romantically? Would a snatch of British accent on a street corner send me into sentimental reverie?

“All of my thoughts are memories.”

The Engineer of Human Souls by Josef Škvorecký begins with mention of a ‘wilderness’, which is, for the narrator, the grounds of Edenvale College in snowy Toronto. The use of this word is, of course, intended to emphasise that Danny Smiricky, a Czech by birth, has in a sense been cast out, or, more accurately, has cast himself out, from his home country. Czechoslovakia, as it was known at the time, was first invaded by the Nazis, and then, after the war, became one of the Soviet Communist satellite states; and so it was, without question, a dangerous, unstable place for quite some time. Therefore, Danny is, in essence, a refugee; his decision to move was not made in search of adventure, as is the case with many novels dealing with the émigré experience, but in order to live without being in a constant state of anxiety or uneasiness. Indeed, he calls Canada ‘wonderful’, because ‘there is nothing to be afraid of.’

As you would expect then, oppression plays a major role in the novel, although it is often dealt with in a lighthearted, almost good-natured way consistent with the narrator’s personality and outlook on life. For example, the father of Nadia, the girl who a young Danny spends much of his time trying to lay, is sent to a concentration camp, and is presumed dead. Danny himself, meanwhile, is, as are many of the inhabitants of Kostelec, forced by the Nazis to work in a Messerschmitt factory, and subsequently becomes embroiled in a sabotage caper that he believes may cost him his life. Likewise, the evils of communism are frequently alluded to: Veronika, one of Smiricky’s students, was, we’re told, thrown out of a Prague theatre group for having Jewish blood; and, in one of the old letters that pepper the text, letters from Danny’s friends and fellow artists, a playwright informs him that his work has been suppressed, including a play that seems to have involved little more than a bunch of people shitting.


[“Memorial to the Victims of Communism” – Prague, Czech Republic]

Yet even in present day Canada Danny and the Czech community he regularly interacts with are not entirely safe from what he describes as ‘the many horrors of our life.’ There are numerous amusing chapters devoted to Czech informers and secret police officers and their attempts to entrap or, in the case of Magister Maslo, take out, these enemies of the state. However, even when recounting the most obviously comedic episodes – such as the female informer who Danny manages to get so horrendously drunk that she cannot keep her cover story straight – Škvorecký has a serious point to make, about freedom, the kinds of freedom that people like me often take for granted. For example, he notes Dotty’s crude t-shirt, which depicts a naked couple in the act of copulation, and for which she would have been arrested ‘back home.’ And one gets the sense that this is why she is wearing it: because she can, and because at one time she could not. One also sees something of this in Mrs. Santner’s passionate defence of a Czech author and his right to be as blasphemous or inappropriate in his work as he sees fit.

It is worth saying a little more about the Czech community, and indeed all of the minor characters in the novel, for they are so lovingly, finely drawn: autumn-eyed Veronika, who misses Czechoslovakia so much and feels out of place in Canada; skinny Nadia with the big appetite, who displays more genuine heroism than anyone else in the novel, and who, I have to admit, made my poor heart ache; Novak, who brings Danny a replacement for a record he had played a part, a long time ago, in losing; and many many others. But this, as noted previously, is due to Danny and the way that he sees the world. He describes himself as ‘a sadist with a soft heart,’ and that is a nice phrase, but I would lose the sadist bit, for he is a pure sentimentalist; indeed, he is the best kind of sentimentalist, which is to say that he isn’t naive, he merely tries to see the best in people. Even the informers and secret police officers are given something of the benefit of the doubt, and he treats them all with warmth. Moreover, he understands that if something bad happens, something much worse could have happened instead, and does happen, and is happening somewhere else in the world. Make no mistake, The Engineer of Human Souls is a relentlessly moving and beautiful book, written in the loveliest blue-eyed style.

“The writer is the engineer of the human soul.” – Joseph Stalin

In my introduction I wrote about yearning for ‘the old country’, and have mentioned how Veronika does just that, yet it is Danny who lives in his memories the most. Everything reminds him of Czechoslovakia, everything transports him back home, everything is a madeleine. So, for example, when his English is praised in the present, this instantly brings to mind for him a story from his youth, an incident whereby he spoke English to a German officer, and of course immediately regretted it. Indeed, while watching a film at the Svenssons’, as he experiences another of his flashbacks, he states that ‘associations’ are ‘the essence of everything.’ And, if you have read a number of my reviews, you will know that I agree with him, that, without question, were I to emigrate to Prague, that beautiful city that Danny left behind with such a heavy heart, I would still spend much of my time here.



Whenever something terrible happens – the Paris attacks, a school shooting, or whatever – people invariably express their shock and surprise, and I always feel slightly bewildered by this kind of reaction, because, although I could not possibly have foreseen these specific events, I am nevertheless profoundly not shocked nor surprised [although I am, of course, deeply saddened by them]. Human history, and my own experiences to a lesser extent, has taught me that we are capable of, that we actively and regularly engage in, every kind of baseness, brutality or infamy. In a way, I feel as though, at some unspecified point in my life, I have lost something precious, some necessary faith or belief in the inherent goodness of our species, because that is what it comes down to, my anguished shrug of the shoulders: I simply don’t believe that we are, or more specifically that we will consistently prove ourselves to be, better than this.

“She’s trying to make me believe that all suffering is the same, that all the dead weigh the same. As counterbalance for the weight of my dead friends, for all their ashes, she’s offering  the weight of her own suffering. But the dead don’t all weigh the same, of course.”

Jorge Semprun was a Spanish writer and politician, who spent most of his life in France. He lived through WW2, becoming a member of the French resistance, before being arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. He wrote more than one book about his experiences, the most well-known of which is Le grand voyage [The Long Voyage, in English]. I have read many novels about the Holocaust, and of course each of them are different, and certainly each of them has moved me, but this is the first time that I have encountered a narrative voice that truly spoke to me. Now, obviously that isn’t necessary, it is not important to be able to find oneself in this kind of book, but when it does happen I want to acknowledge it, especially as it – the voice – is one of the most striking things about Semprun’s work. It is a voice characterised by a lack of disbelief, it is always logical or rational, tough but understanding. ‘I never imagined such a thing was possible’, says the guy from Semur. ‘Anything is possible’, the narrator replies.

Yes, anything is possible. Death camps. Incinerators. Lampshades made out of human skin. All possible. All, and more. Semprun’s narrator is not shocked, not by what is happening to him, nor by what happens to other people. How can you be shocked if you refuse to close your eyes? And that is what I got from The Long Voyage, a sense that here is an author who felt it important not to shy away from the truth. For example, the thing that the guy from Semur ‘never imagined’ was possible was that a man could be in a prison or camp and not share his provisions. The narrator explains that this isn’t, by any means, the most gratuitously selfish behaviour he has witnessed. Men will, he says, steal from someone their last piece of black bread, thereby choosing their own life, their own continued existence, over the life of someone else, who is, by virtue of that theft, being condemned to death.


[Jewish prisoners being deported to concentration camps]

Having said all that, the camps are not the true focus of the story. The Long Voyage begins with the ‘cramming of the bodies’ into a boxcar, and with a ‘throbbing pain in the right knee.’ There are 120 men and women on a train bound for Weimar, bound for extermination. In Vasily Grossman’s Life & Fate there is a passage in which a bunch of people are loaded onto trucks and driven to a concentration camp and straight into the showers. It is written with great sensitivity and empathy. Yet, while Semprun puts the reader in a similar situation, which is to say that he forces you to ride along with his characters, his approach is different. Indeed, the train sections of The Long Voyage have much in common with the work of Samuel Beckett, especially How It Is and The Unnameable.

In How it Is, for example, the narrator is lying in the mud murmuring to himself, and attempting to crawl along the ground. He is constrained, and haunted by voices. In Semprun’s novel, the narrator is trapped in a dark boxcar, squashed up against a large number of people who he cannot see but can, of course, hear. And what he frequently hears are screams and murmurs, complaints and threats. It is a nightmarish and absurd situation. To Semprun’s credit, he acknowledges the absurdity, he plays upon it, such that the book is, miraculously, at times [intentionally] very funny. ‘Breathing is the main thing’, the guy from Semur says, as he clears a path to the small window, which is covered in barbed wire. Ha. Well, of course. Breathing is vital, if you want to live. And these people, who are hurtling towards their death, would like to live, at least a little bit longer, thanks very much.

“Four days, five nights. But I must have counted wrong, or else some of the days must have turned into nights. I have a surplus of nights, more nights than I can use.”

However, The Long Voyage is not all grim humour, there are beautiful moments too. While on the train the narrator spends some of his time looking out of the window, and at one stage he passes through the Moselle Valley. At this precise moment, he says, the world was reborn within him. What he means by this is that in the boxcar he has been cut off from the world, literally and spiritually. It is only when he passes through the Moselle Valley, when he recognises it, that he reconnects with the world, with what is outside, with a real place. The word ‘real’ is important here, because the situation in the boxcar is, of course, unreal. Indeed, the nature of reality, or unreality, plays a major role in the text.

In the boxcar, or in a death camp, one’s understanding of, or relationship with, reality changes. In other words, the unreal becomes real. You become accustomed to the bizarre, the grotesque, the appalling, such that a sudden revealing of the existence of, or a confrontation with, the normal is a kind of spiritual shock. On this, there is a wonderful scene in the book when the narrator leaves the camp and comes upon a group of women. Not women with shaved heads, starved to death, beaten and gassed, but women, real women, with stockings and lips and thigh-hugging skirts. And these creatures seem unreal to him, in the same way that the camp corpses, that he shows them, do to the women. I found this so engaging, for I had thought about our ability to adapt to horrendous circumstances, and our ability to normalise the not-normal, but I had never considered that it might work the other way around.

As always with these reviews, there is more that I want to discuss, but I fear writing too much and alienating the few people with the necessary patience to read my work. So I won’t talk about freedom, about how freedom is what people in prison have in common with each other. No, I will finish with something about memory. Structurally, The Long Voyage is essentially a kind of Proustian Arabian Nights, if you will allow me this ridiculous phrase, where, instead of stories-within-stories, we encounter memories-within-memories, memories, like bodies in a boxcar, stacked on top of each other. Yet instead of a madeleine, it is a taste of black bread, years after release, that ‘brought back, with shocking suddenness, the marvellous moments when we used to eat our rations of bread, when, with Indian-like stealth, we used to stretch it out, so that the tiny squares of wet, sandy bread which we cut out of our daily ration would last as long as possible.’


There’s a popular argument for the existence of God, which is that the world, as we see and experience it, is complexly ordered, and so someone must be responsible for this order. Which is nice and logical, of course, but, rightly or wrongly, when I look at the world I don’t see harmony, I see chaos, especially where humanity is concerned. When I think about human existence it strikes me as overwhelmingly random. Without exception, you’re thrown into a situation over which you have no control whatsoever, a situation – whether good or bad – that is unstable, where with each passing second something could happen that could alter the fabric of your life. And this, at least partly, is what Harry Mulisch’s acclaimed Dutch novel is about.

The Assault spans decades in the life of Anton Steenwijk. It opens in 1945, a time when ‘almost all of Europe had been liberated and were once more rejoicing’; but this is Holland, and the Nazis are, unfortunately, still hanging around. Despite the war, the atmosphere in the Steenwijk household is peaceful, domestic; the family are spending the evening together; the eldest son is doing his homework, with the help of his father; the mother is unravelling a sweater. Later, they start to play a board game. Then, with no warning, six gunshots punctuate the night like the sound of the flapping of giant moth wings, and everything changes. Mulisch emphasises the normality of the situation prior to the shots almost as a way of lulling you into a false sense of security, the same false sense of security that the family themselves feel. Moreover, it is necessary that you believe that this is a normal family, that you understand that this – the assault that occurs – could happen to anyone, that remarkable things can and do happen to unremarkable people.


[Nazi collaborator and police officer Fake Krist lays dead in Haarlem, Netherlands, after being shot by the resistance]

Of course, you now want to know what the assault is. The details of the tragedy, which is partly based on a true story, are not important, not in relation to this review, anyway. What interests me is what I touched upon in the introduction, which is just how unpredictable life is. One event, one moment…no warning, and nothing is ever the same again. Anton, the Steenwijk’s youngest son, and only twelve at the time, is uprooted from Haarlem, and moved to Amsterdam; he is adopted by his aunt and uncle. More significantly, he carries the event around with him, is influenced by it, even when he thinks that he is paying it no mind, because in avoidance of something one still has a relationship with it. Towards the middle of the novel, Mulisch introduces another important character, Cor Takes, who interacts with Anton as an adult. He is more obviously affected by the assault, he, year-on-year, has it at the forefront of his mind, he makes no effort to let it go. Yet it is the case that both characters cannot escape it, or the war in Holland as a whole, they are tied to it; it is simply that they deal with that in different ways. The horrible truth of the matter is that one does not live with war or tragedy for the duration of the conflict or incident, one lives with it forever; this is, I think, Mulisch’s point.

One might ask, how do I know this? How do I know that one lives with tragedy long after the event, that it becomes part of you? Well, it isn’t something I have learnt from literature, that’s for sure. I’ve had my own experiences, which I won’t go into here, and I have known many people  – refugees, rape victims, trafficked women, etc – who have suffered more than I. And I saw their story in The Assault, in Anton Steenwijk’s behaviour and mindset. Mulisch’s book is, for me, the most believable, and powerful, exploration of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that I have encountered in fiction. As noted, Anton rarely acknowledges the past to himself, and yet his choices, his actions, scream about it. For example, he studies medicine, because ‘he was fascinated by the delicate equilibrium that must be maintained whenever the butchers plant their knives in someone – this balancing on the edge between life and death.’ And I don’t think it takes a genius to understand why he might have an interest in death, and, as an anesthesiologist, pain and consciousness and memory. Likewise, Anton chooses a wife that, he admits to himself, in some vague way reminds him of the woman with whom he shared a cell so soon after the assault.

One of the most moving passages in the book is when Anton is at the theatre watching The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov’s famous last play, and he suddenly experiences an intensely painful flashback. The play is not, of course, at all concerned with war and yet Steenwijk sees something in it, in an innocuous scene involving a family sat around a table, that reminds him of his own family and that awful night in 1945. This kind of thing is, sadly, very familiar to me. As are the nightmares that Anton experiences. Indeed, I know a young woman who all but avoids sleep altogether because she cannot cope with the terrible nightmares she suffers as a result of what once happened to her. Even if I thought the rest of his book was dogshit [I don’t], I would applaud Mulisch – who lived through world war two himself, who lost his grandmother in the gas chambers – for all this, for going there and nailing it in such a sensitive way.


[A performance of The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov]

While reading the books that I intend to review I make notes for myself, I jot down a few ideas about what I want to write about, the themes, important passages, and so on. Sometimes it is a bit of a struggle, but not with The Assault. Five paragraphs already, and I have not explored even half of what I wanted to prior to commencing this review, or certainly not in as much detail as I would like. Well, never mind; I guess it is important that I keep this under 3000 words, so that at least a few people will endeavour to read it. However, one thing that I do want to make explicit is that The Assault is such a brave and intelligent novel. Even in relation to something like the Nazi occupation of a country, Mulisch does not blindly take sides, he does not look for easy answers or explanations. For example, the resistance man, Takes, admits to killing and cutting up [literally into pieces] Nazis or collaborators, he longs to murder an old woman who ratted him out. There’s no romanticising of freedom fighters here, folks. In fact, Takes comments that many people only joined the resistance because they knew that Hitler was losing; and while I would rather not believe this, I do, unfortunately, find it very easy to believe.

Mulisch also pulls no punches in relation to the dead body that inspires the assault. When Fake Ploeg is shot a neighbour moves the corpse so that it it is outside the Steenwijk’s house, knowing full-well what this means, what will happen when the Nazis find it there. Moreover, Peter Steenwijk goes outside intent on moving it again [this scene is, in fact, grimly amusing], either back to from where it came, or to another house. Again, he knows what the consequences will be when it is found. Mulisch is not afraid to acknowledge the ruthlessness of people caught in life or death situations. Better them, than us. Even though all are innocent. Every one of us would like to think that we would not do such a thing, that we would not condemn someone else in order to save ourselves, but it is impossible to say with any certainty how one would behave in such a situation.

“Not until people are called Adolf again will the Second World War be really behind us. But that means we’d have to have a third world war, which would mean the end of Adolfs forever.”

You may have noticed that I have not so far not indulged in any criticism, and the reason for this is that The Assault is almost without blemish. The most I could say in this regard is that the scene between Anton and the woman in the dark prison cell is slightly cringeworthy. I just, I don’t know, struggled to get on board with a wounded woman babbling on about poetry and love, while feeling up a young boy’s face. A more serious complaint would be that there is a hell of a lot of contrivance, or coincidence in the book. Anton meets Takes, who played a major role in the assault, at a funeral, for example; in fact, he overhears him talking about it. This is many years after the event, of course. Yet one could argue that these coincidences are all part of, are evidence of Mulisch’s ideas about living with war and the impossibility of escaping one’s past. Throughout his life, Anton consistently bumps into people that are connected to the war, because it is simply a fact that everyone was involved in it in some way, you didn’t have a choice, it was unavoidable, it was there, on your doorstep, like Fake Ploeg’s dead body.


I have a reputation in my family for being cold and difficult to be around. I don’t, the consensus is, ‘make any effort’ with them. And that is true. I really don’t. Don’t get me wrong, family can be a wonderful thing, if it is a safe and strong and nurturing unit; but I realised at a very young age that the idea of being tied to a bunch of people who you have nothing in common with, who are, moreover, unpleasant human beings, is absurd. Recently my mother has become involved with her sister again. This sister is, quite frankly, vile. I find the fact that she is back in my life very hard to take, but I find it even harder that she is back in my mother’s, although of course my opinion is irrelevant. The only real blessing is that my Uncle is not around, having died of cancer some years ago. You are not meant to speak ill of the dead, but it’s difficult when someone had almost no redeeming features. I was present at his funeral, when the eulogy was spoken. He liked cats we were told. And, yes, I guess he did, but he was also a violent criminal, with perverse sexual tendencies, who kept a gun behind his sofa.

So I can identify with Seigfried Pfaffrath, one of the major players in Wolfgang Koeppen’s Death in Rome. It is the 1950’s, and he has essentially fled to Rome in order to escape his family, his past, and reinvent himself as a composer. But he finds that, in reality, you can’t escape, because wherever you go you bring your experiences with you. Much of the novel is devoted to internal monologues, and even before he comes to understand that prominent members of his family are also in Rome Seigfried can think of little outside of his childhood, his hated Uncle Judejahn, his father, and the recently ended war. It is significant, I think, that he chose to become a musician, because we generally think of music as being an expression of the creator’s inner life, their soul. Seigfried’s music is described as being frightening, as ‘naked and unworthy despair.’ It especially unnerves Kurenberg’s wife [the husband being a friend of Seigfried’s] who grew up in the same area and whose father was eventually murdered by the Nazis.

“Once upon a time, this city was a home to gods, now there’s only Raphael in the Pantheon, a demigod, a darling of Apollo’s, but the corpses that joined him later are a sorry bunch, a cardinal of dubious merit, a couple of monarchs and their purblind generals, high-flying civil servants, scholars that made it into the reference books, artists of academic distinction. Who gives a damn about them?”

The Nazis, racism, and complicity all play important roles in Death in Rome. At one stage Seigfried dredges up the memory of Kurenberg asking for assistance from his father, in an attempt to save his own father-in-law. The advice that he received from Friedrich Pfaffrath, who at that time was a senior administrator, was to divorce his Jewish wife. A large part of Seigfried’s anguish is related to his not wanting to be associated with his family’s actions during the war and their ongoing Nazi sympathies. Like me, he feels tied to people who do not represent his feelings or opinions, whose behaviour he does not condone, people who, unfortunately, he will always be tied to by blood at least. He has, he states, thought about changing his name, so as to distance himself, but decided that to disappoint his family, who would not be in favour of his vocation, is a nice form of revenge; indeed, he focuses specifically on twelve tone music, which was frowned upon in his youth and was actually considered by the Nazis to be ‘degenerate.’ I found this aspect of the novel to be one of the most engaging; Koeppen did a fine job of capturing the young composer’s understandable shame, disgust, and helplessness, in being related to murders and war criminals [although I would say that he borrowed liberally from William Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom in order to achieve it].

“Could I even cope with my own life? And then I thought: If Adolf and I can’t cope with life, then we should at least unite against those unscrupulous people who want to rule because they are unimaginative, against the real Pfaffraths, the real Judejahns, the real Klingspors, and perhaps we could change Germany. But even as I was thinking that, it already seemed to me that Germany was past changing, that one could only change oneself, and everyone had to do that for him or herself.”

The most imposing member of the family and, as noted, the most hated by Seigfried, is Gottlieb Judejahn, a former SS officer. He fled Germany due to a death sentence having been placed upon him for his involvement in the war, during which he had ordered the execution, and had himself killed, numerous people. As with Seigfried, a large part of the novel is also given over to Judejahn’s thoughts and feelings, and none of them are pleasant. He is an unrepentant Nazi and racist. He yearns for war, for bloodshed, for a reinvigorated, all-powerful and all-conquering Germany. In Guy de Muapassant’s Bel Ami, Georges Duroy is described as having the attitude of ‘an NCO let loose in a conquered land,’ and I think this suits Judejahn perfectly. Men are to be beaten down or brought to heel, and women [whom he frequently refers to as ‘cunt’] are to be raped or fucked [if willing]. After spending some time with Judejahn not only did I empathise with Siegfried in his hatred, but I started to understand the title of the novel. Death in Rome. It doesn’t mean dying in Rome, it means that Death has come to Rome, and his name is Judejahn, a man who stalks the pages of the book, and the city itself, like a particularly grim Grim Reaper.


[Rome in the 1950’s]

However, as I progressed through the novel, I struggled to understand what exactly Koeppen was trying to say, specifically in relation to Judejahn. That SS men were psychopaths? Well, yeah. I mean, that’s hardly news is it? Moreover, I felt as though Judejahn is simply too cartoonishly loathsome; I was, in fact, unable to take him seriously as a human being. Yes, he is a Nazi, but I’m not convinced that he had to be so unrelentingly despicable, so much so that at times I expected him to tie a woman to some train tracks and stand to the side twirling his moustache. I am, of course, not defending the Nazis, but would simply have liked this one to be a little more nuanced as a character. Indeed, I don’t actually think it is helpful to portray them as titanically evil [not to mention miserable], without a humane thought in their head or even the merest hint of sensitivity. That, for me, almost excuses them, as though we are saying that they are or were sub-human, or not human at all. They absolutely are and were human, they had families, friends, they laughed and enjoyed themselves. That is what is so horrifying about them. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only example of Koeppen losing control of his material. I was also decidedly unimpressed with the melodramatic scene in which Adolf, Judejahn’s son, kind of befriends a starving Jewish boy, and the two swap uniforms and break bread.

In any case, I would laud Koeppen for his bravery in writing, and having published, a novel such as this so soon after the war, for reminding the world that Nazis didn’t just stop being Nazis because Hitler lost; they didn’t simply see the error of their ways, or ‘wake up’ as though coming out of a deep sleep. I think if the book says anything of note, anything really important, then that is it. People like Judejahn, who becomes a kind of Arab arms dealer, or Friedrich Pfaffrath, who becomes a legitimate mayor, may try and reinvent themselves, they may hide or escape, but their old prejudices remain. In this way, the stream of consciousness technique was entirely appropriate, because one might be able to wash the blood off one’s hands, but one’s thoughts, if we have access to them, would always reveal the true nature of the man.


I hate reading reviews for this sort of thing; in fact, I actively avoid them these days. Why? Because a large number of people refuse to approach such books as art, as fiction. They insist, regardless of what the author has said, that they are memoir, that what they describe is absolutely true. There is, in my opinion, something slightly perverse about that, a kind of twisted psychology that I find distasteful. It is not a popular view, I’ll grant you, but it strikes me that it is as though they want everything to be true because it adds [perhaps sub-consciously] a certain spice to their reading to imagine that such awful things actually occurred.

I am aware that Polish poet, writer, and journalist Tadeusz Borowski did spend time in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and that there are further parallels between the life of his narrator and his own life, but that is not unusual. No writer is ever able to completely disown themselves, and so of course his experiences will have filtered into these tales. Yet if he had wanted to simply bear witness he could have done so and he didn’t, he decided to compose a series of short stories instead. To ignore or dismiss that is to insult the author, and, to my mind, leaves you in danger of being a kind of literary ambulance chaser. In any case, I have to approach this book as art, because, quite frankly, it is the only way I can bear to read it.

“It is the camp law: people going to their death must be deceived to the very end.”

For the last couple of years, since I been trying to quit smoking, I have taken to carrying around with me during the day whatever book I am currently reading, fitting in a few pages during my breaks at work. Often people will peer at the cover, mutter the title to themselves, and then carry on with their own business. The other day a friend of mine came over to the table at which I was sitting, picked up This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, turned it over, read the title and winced. I think this is the only time that this has ever happened. It is not a ridiculous reaction, either. As titles go it is provocative, shocking even; it is also, I believe, appropriate, because it sums up the attitude – tough, mocking, cynical, cruel – of most of the stories contained within.


[Work Makes You Free. The gates of Auschwitz]

I have read a number of books about the Holocaust, and each is different, of course. But the one thing that generally tends to tie them together is that they focus on the victims, who are almost always Jewish, and their experiences; there is a very real sense of innocence, and clear distinctions between the aggressors and the oppressed, the good and the bad. That is not the case here. Borowski’s stories are written in the first person, and the narrator [if we assume it is the same one throughout – which for ease I will] is openly, actively involved in ‘the process.’ Now, one must not lose sight of the fact that Tadek has not chosen to be in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and in this way he is a victim too, but, nevertheless, the morality on display is muddier than one would expect, to say the least.

The title story, which opens the collection, is particularly disturbing. I must admit that I found it tough to keep turning the pages, even bearing in mind my stance, my insistence that we read the stories as fiction. Unusually, Borowski dispenses with backstory, with arrests or journeys, and drops you straightaway into the camp. There is, therefore, no sense of building towards a [terrible] climax, towards an end; one gets the impression that life has always been this way and always will, which is, I imagine, how it must have felt to be a prisoner. The author also immediately challenges your expectations by introducing a ‘fat Frenchman’ [there were fat people in the camps? is the absurd question that ran through my mind], and describing a situation where the inmates appear to eat well and have access to all kinds of luxury items [Tadek notes that the labour gang ‘smells not of maple forests but of French perfume’]. One feels an instant revulsion for all this, for the idea that some prisoners were chowing down on bacon and potatoes while others starved, even though there is little sense in everyone starving together.

“Why is it that nobody cries out, nobody spits in their faces, nobody jumps at their throats? We doff our caps to the S.S. men returning from the little wood; if our name is called we obediently go with them to die, and—we do nothing. We starve, we are drenched by rain, we are torn from our families. What is this mystery? This strange power of one man over another? This insane passivity that cannot be overcome? Our only strength is our great number—the gas chambers cannot accommodate all of us.”

It is where this food, these luxuries are coming from that provides the most aggressive punch in the gut. I am a very cynical man, and so you would think that I would have been able to guess, that it would have been obvious, yet somehow it still came as a horrible surprise, as though I didn’t want to acknowledge the truth to myself until I had no choice. In short, the trains draw into the camp, and the labour gang, or Kommando, help to unload the new arrivals, in the process relieving them of their possessions, be they dead or alive. The gold and money goes to the S.S., and the rest goes to the workers, such as Tadek and the Frenchman. They are, then, essentially robbers, even, you might say, graverobbers. And yet what is perhaps hardest to stomach is not the stealing, the death, the prospect of the crematorium [or ‘cremo’ as it is called throughout the book], but the inhumanity, the lack of empathy displayed by the prisoners.

We want to believe, and the media plays a big part in helping us to believe, that those in crisis, those who are suffering, will stick together, will go down together, will, at the very least, sympathise with each other, but that is not the case here. I have long felt that certain atrocities or tragedies undergo a kind of Disneyfication. One need only look at 9/11, where the story has become about heroism and patriotism, and the truly awful has been buried. One of the collection’s overriding themes is, as one would expect, survival or, more specifically, what will people do to survive? What are we capable of in order to save ourselves? It’s a question not many of us would be comfortable in asking of ourselves, and even if one did it is impossible to say whether our response would be truthful. In any case, Borowski asks it, or the camp does, and the answers are often unpleasant.

“Real hunger is when one man regards another man as something to eat.”

In the second story in the collection Tadek is speaking to a Jewish man, needling him somewhat about his actions in a previous camp. The old man, he himself admits, denounced his own son, had him hung. Again, we instantly recoil, we judge, we ourselves, as readers, denounce this man, and yet he then says something significant. He says that at some point one comes to see other people as food. Of course, he doesn’t mean this literally [although there is a story that does involve cannibalism], rather that other people become your means of survival, they are sacrificed, if necessary, in order for you to continue to live. I believe, or at least I hope, that none of us can relate to that dilemma: having to decide between one’s own existence or the existence of someone else. We cannot therefore truly judge this man, because lord knows what we would actually do. We know what we would like to think we would do, but that, as we sit comfortably in our homes, means absolutely nothing.

There is also one other thing to consider, which is that for those who are placed in brutal environments, who are treated brutally themselves, and witness brutality on a daily basis, there is the danger that it will become normal. Human beings are extraordinarily adaptable, our expectations, behaviour, morals are likely to change depending on our circumstances; just look at the army, at the police. So, yes, Tadek’s attitude, his actions, appear cold and uncaring, even wrong, to us, but we are not in a concentration camp; in there, Borowski seems to suggest, that is just what life was like. People did not hold hands and help each other out, they looked after themselves, they wished people dead, they joked about the cremos, they got annoyed with weaker inmates.

Having said this, as the book progresses, there is a shift in tone, the narrator becomes more hopeful, certainly more sentimental and caring towards his fellow man or woman. Indeed, one story is in the form of a letter he sends to his girlfriend, who is also in a concentration camp. While this new, more humane Tadek is a relief it does, in my opinion, mean that the collection, taken as a whole, feels slightly uneven, even contradictory. Don’t get me wrong, This Way for the Gas is a fine book, but the second half is less original, less startling, less disconcerting in terms of what you are asked to confront, about man in general and yourself in particular.

neither poems nor prose
just a length of rope
just the wet earth —
that’s the way home.

neither vodka nor bread
just bursts of rage
just more new graves —
that’s youth and that’s love.


When I was younger the only musical instrument we had in the house was an old acoustic guitar of my Dad’s. Despite an interest in music, I was never particularly drawn to that guitar, finding it a snivelling and cowardly instrument; an acoustic, I thought to myself, cowers and sighs and feels sorry for itself, and that wasn’t at all what I wanted to express. No, I wanted to hammer something, to make a noise. Quite evidently, at that age, and in those circumstances, what best suited my feelings was the drums, on which I imagined I could pound out the rhythm of my frustration and fear. Yet we couldn’t afford anything so extravagant, so I abused the old guitar instead, until it was fit for no purpose other than kindling.

Llittle Oskar Matzerath, the central character, and narrator, of Günter Wilhelm Grass’ renowned German novel, is, however, a little more fortunate. Upon his birth his mother promises him a drum by his third birthday, and, in accordance with that promise, one is duly given to him. As the title of the novel suggests, the instrument plays a pivotal role in the boy’s life and the work as a whole. Oskar quickly bonds with it, finding in it, much like I hoped I would, a way of expressing himself; indeed, it acts almost in place of speech as a means of communication, so that when he commences his tale on ‘virgin white paper’ he appears to be suggesting that the drum is telling it for him [something that is not unknown in certain African cultures, where the drum is used to communicate over long distances by mimicking patterns of speech], or that it at least allows him to tell it.

“If I didn’t have my drum, which, when handled adroitly and patiently, remembers all the incidentals that I need to get the essential down on paper, and if I didn’t have the permission of the management [of the mental institution] to drum on it three or four hours a day, I’d be a poor bastard with nothing to say…”

One must credit Grass, because Oskar’s drum is the most ingenious literary prop. Its versatility is astounding; it has so many functions in the text beyond being a child’s favourite toy. Most surprisingly, it acts as an accompaniment to the work, by which I mean that one cannot help but hear it throughout one’s reading, not only because the Oskar in the story is continually bashing it, but because we know that the Oskar in the asylum is also beating it while he narrates. So when the action speeds up one finds oneself assailed by a frantic pounding; in slower moments, the action is soundtracked with a soft patter. In this way, the drum not only mirrors Oskar’s moods, and the action of the novel, but your own moods and experience of the book as well, even though one cannot literally hear it! It’s a pretty extraordinary thing.

One might also want to consider why Grass chose a drum, for there are numerous instruments that can express feelings and set tempo. It is, first of all, the oldest known instrument; and is considered to be the root of music, perhaps also the sound of nature. There is, then, something primordial about it, it, in a sense, harks back to man’s earliest, least sophisticated state. One must remember that Oskar for much of the novel is pretending to be a simpleton, and yet considers himself superior to everyone else. In this way, the drum symbolises how other people see him, but also symbolises how he sees them and the world. Furthermore, the drum is, of course, associated with the military, specifically with parades, marches, and rallies. While The Tin Drum is not solely focused on World War 2, for the book spans a larger historical period than that conflict, it certainly plays a significant role in the text. So it isn’t a stretch to suggest that Oskar’s pounding heralds, so to speak, and could be said to mimic, the army’s jackbooted marching.

As one would perhaps expect of a novel at least partly concerned with World War 2, destruction is one of the major themes; indeed, it is in relation to this theme that one begins to understand the wider significance of this grotesque little drummer boy. His harsh, doomy-sounding and violent [to play it is, in most cases, to strike it] instrument of choice, his madness, as well as his ability to shatter glass with his voice, could be said to represent not only the collective insanity of the German people, but the literal destruction of Germany and the violence of Hitler’s ideology. Certainly, Oskar’s ‘singshattering’ foreshadows, and could even be said to be responsible for, Kristallnacht, which is invariably seen as the first co-ordinated step towards the Final Solution and the Holocaust.

There are, furthermore, repeated references to fire. In the very beginning, we are introduced to Oskar’s grandmother, Anna; she comes to marry a man called Joseph Koljaiczek, who was once a kind of Polish revolutionary and, specifically, an arsonist. Moreover, Oskar’s drum is said to have a pattern of red and white flames; in this way, one could say the drum itself, not only Oskar with his voice, promises destruction. The pattern on the tin drum is also evidence of one of the book’s other preoccupations, which is Poland. Red and white is, of course, the colour of their flag. I must admit that I am no expert on Polish history and the country’s relations with Germany, but I do know a little about Danzig, where part of the novel is set. Danzig [or Gdańsk as it is now known] is a Polish city on the Baltic coast that was once ruled by Germany. More pertinently, Hitler used the issue of the status of the city as a pretext for attacking Poland.

“I look for the land of the Poles that is lost to the Germans, for the moment at least. Nowadays the Germans have started searching for Poland with credits, Leicas, and compasses, with radar, divining rods, delegations, and moth-eaten provincial students’ associations in costume. Some carry Chopin in their hearts, others thoughts of revenge. Condemning the first four partitions of Poland, they are busily planning a fifth; in the meantime flying to Warsaw via Air France in order to deposit, with appropriate remorse, a wreath on the spot that was once the ghetto. One of these days they will go searching for Poland with rockets. I, meanwhile, conjure up Poland on my drum. And this is what I drum: Poland’s lost, but not forever, all’s lost, but not forever, Poland’s not lost forever.”

The Tin Drum, I imagine it is clear by now, is a complex work, one that is on the surface a kind of bildungsroman, but which engages with numerous political, philosophical issues, and is full of motifs and symbolism and allusions. Some of this is relatively easy to get your head around and some of it is slightly more slippery. For example, there is a lot of duality in the novel that I’m not sure I can fully explain – the city of Danzig, which is both Polish and German; Oskar having two fathers, etc – except in relation to each other. One such, that of good and evil or Jesus and Satan, strikes me as particularly interesting. Of course, that a novel concerned with World War 2 would be exploring good and evil isn’t surprising, but it is maybe more eyebrow-raising that the narrator seems to come down on the side of the horned-one. For example, during his baptism Oskar is asked to renounce the Devil and he refuses. In fact, if I was to compare Oskar to any other literary character it would be the charismatic Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. I don’t think this is a wild swing in the dark either. At one stage, Oskar takes to cutting holes in shop windows, not in order to steal himself but to try and tempt others into doing so.


[From the film Die Blechtrommel, dir. by Volker Schlondorff]

It strikes me as odd that in the few reviews or articles that I’ve come across online not one of them has used the term unreliable narrator; it is almost as though Oskar’s voice [or drum!] is so persuasive that readers take what he says on face value, regardless of how strange it is, preferring instead to label the book magical realist. That really doesn’t make much sense to me. Oskar, in the very first line of the novel, reveals that he is currently in an insane asylum, so one has to doubt, for example, his claim that he made a conscious decision to stop growing, or that his voice can shatter glass, and so on. Moreover, even if he wasn’t apparently mad, one would still call into question what Oskar says, because he makes it clear that he has one eye on creating an interesting and dramatic narrative; and he certainly gives the impression of withholding and manipulating information. He also, for what it’s worth, very obviously has a high opinion of himself, despite his short-comings [boom, boom], or rather because of them; that someone might compensate for any physical defects with a show of supreme self-confidence, or that they may lie in order to appear more exciting and more interesting, or even that they may want to turn these defects into magical gifts, does not seem completely unbelievable. None of this puts me in mind of magical realism, where the idea is that the genuinely magical exists side-by-side, so to speak, with the ordinary.

Before wrapping this up, I want to mention Grass’ prose and, by extension, the translation. I have read The Tin Drum twice now; the first time was in Ralph Manheim’s translation, which I enjoyed and, not reading German myself, wouldn’t have criticised at all. However, I chose, in re-reading the book, to try Breon Mitchell’s newer version. Now, generally speaking I do not like modern translations. I think they are often egotistical, serving the translator, with their own odd quirks, more than the work itself, so that regardless of the work in question, or who authored it, one can always tell who translated it; I also think that modern translators very rarely have a great command of English, or even, in some cases, an adequate one [I’m looking at you Pevear & Volokhonsky]. Yet I was hugely impressed by Breon Mitchell’s rendering of The Tin Drum. It’s fresher, and funnier than Manheim’s; it’s more alive and poetic. I accept that it is possible that I simply do not remember Manheim’s translation in sufficient detail, but I can certainly recall my reaction it to. For example, I did not see anything of Joyce or Nabokov or Bely in it, but I did see echoes of all those writers in Mitchell’s version, which is playful and makes frequent use of alliteration, word play, and switches between third and first person narration, and so on. As a consequence of all this, his translation would be tougher to read, I’d imagine, but the rewards are far greater.

In any case, although this review in nearly 2000 words long I know I have barely disturbed the surface of the work. Oskar’s affairs, his stint as a Jazz musician and model, the role of the circus, outsiderism, the onion bar where people go to cry, the HORSE’S HEAD AND THE EELS [don’t ask – I could barely keep anything down for a week after reading that passage]: all of these things, and more, could be explored in greater detail, but I fear you have perhaps only been skim-reading since about the third paragraph. But, if, out a sense of politeness, I have your full attention once again I would strongly urge you to read The Tin Drum, to put yourselves in Oskar’s dainty hands for a week or two. And if you have read it before? Read it again.


Since I started writing these reviews I have become aware of the fact that quite a few things scare me. Children terrify me! The Devil terrifies me! Death terrifies me!  Do you want to know what else goose-pimples my skin and has me yearning for the shoulder of a stout motherly woman? Great White Sharks. Yeah, that’s right: Great White Sharks. I hate the pointy-nosed, multi-toothed, evil-looking motherfuckers. Of course, as they cannot be kept in captivity I am very unlikely to ever come face-to-face with one, so my fear is completely irrational. I don’t know, maybe it’s the lifeless eyes, the almost apathetic malevolence, the propensity for extreme violence, the sense of danger that surrounds them. Now, there are no Great White Sharks in this book, but there are Nazis, high-ranking ones; and I couldn’t think of a more suitable, appropriate, metaphor. The Nazis fascinate and frighten us for perhaps similar reasons. Indeed, there is a line in Primo Levi’s wonderful Auschwitz memoir If This Is A Man where he describes how baffling it was to be struck without anger, or dispassionately.

Malaparte, to extend the metaphor, was an Italian journalist who swam with these sharks; he interviewed and wrote about Nazis during the war, and Kaputt, to some extent, is an account of these meetings. However, it is clear that this isn’t merely a work of reportage, as too many of the things he describes in the book just could not have happened or would not have happened in the way that he presents them, so I am inclined to consider it a novel. Some of these unlikely occurrences necessitate further mention, because there are things in Kaputt that genuinely made me feel uncomfortable. Listen, I am generally of the opinion that an author’s personal beliefs are none of my business, nor is what he gets up to in his own life outside of his work; Malaparte could have spent every evening snorting cocaine off the backsides of teenage boys for all I care. Lamentable it might be, but if one was to delve into the biography of any author one would most likely turn up things that are objectionable. [See: Hamsun, Celine, etc.] The thing is, you’d never read anything if you based your choices upon the moral uprightness of writers.

There is evidence to suggest that Curzio was a sympathiser, if you know what I mean, and yet I can even let that slide [which is not the same as saying I agree with him, of course. That couldn’t be further from the truth]. He was, according to some reports, also an arch opportunist; and so when he realised that the Nazis were going to lose the war he returned to his work and re-wrote it in a less sympathetic manner. Again, I can accept this, but he did so in such a way as to present himself as some kind of agent provocateur. It is this sense of smugness that gave me brain-ache and made me waver in my regard for Kaputt. There is one scene in particular where he is shown around a Jewish ghetto by some Nazis and Curzio has himself commiserating with the inhabitants in the most excruciating manner. He apologises to them and tells one poor unfortunate Jew that one day things will be set right. Ugh. You horrible, self-serving bastard. I nearly gave up on the book at this point. But, I didn’t. And that is because Kaputt is an extraordinary, unique work. It is so beautifully written, so strange, so memorable that I was, just, able to overlook its flaws. Therefore I recommend it, but not unreservedly, to everyone.