- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 10, 2002

This year's Nobel Prize for literature went to Imre Kertesz, a writer who survived both Auschwitz and persecution under communism in his native Hungary, experiences similar to those of local author Arnost Lustig. He also was at Auschwitz; his father died there and he was later transferred to Buchenwald. After the 1968 Soviet invasion, Mr. Lustig left his homeland, Czechoslovakia, and came to the United States, and now is professor of literature at American University.
Mr. Lustig's novel Lovely Green Eyes (Arcade, $24.95, 240 pages), translated from the Czech by Ewald Osers, whose mother also was a victim of the Holocaust, was released last spring and could be described in the words of Mr. Kertesz's Nobel citation which praised "writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history."
The novel's protagonist is 15-year-old Hanka Kaudersova, a Czech inmate at Auschwitz-Birkenau where her parents and brother have died. People call her, descriptively, "Skinny," and she has reddish hair and "lovely green eyes." She has been told she does not look Jewish. At a critical moment, Skinny makes a desperate move. She lies about her age, conceals her true identity and volunteers to work in a brothel for Nazi soldiers. She is terrified and desperately ashamed but she understands that "in Germany it was better to be a bad whore than a good Jew." And she wants to live.
Despite its difficult subject, this is a work of extraordinary delicacy. Mr. Lustig describes Skinny's experiences in considerable detail yet his writing is never coarse. Unsentimentally, he takes the young girl from client to client 12 men each day, occasionally 14, except for when Madame Kulikowa, who runs the brothel, does her a favor and sends her an officer who wants a girl with whom to linger. After the war, when she is safe, Skinny sometimes is overcome by ghastly memories yet she endures, a provocative, memorable survivor.


Elie Wiesel also was a boy in a Nazi death camp. The author of 40 books of memoirs, drama, journalism and philosophy, winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize and now humanities professor at Boston University, he has led the effort to document the Holocaust and to explore that experience in terms of individual human experience and also of universal religious significance.
His new book, The Judges (Knopf, $24, 210 pages) translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan, is a novel. Mr. Wiesel chooses a classic device a random group of people thrown together in an extreme situation. In this case the characters are passengers bound for Tel Aviv on an airline flight grounded in rural New York by a blizzard. Assigned to take refuge in the homes of volunteers from the nearby area, four men and one woman end up spending the night in the home of a sinister figure who calls himself "the Judge" and lives with a bizarre servant, "the Hunchback."
Only slowly do the passengers emerge from their individual cocoons to understand that they are trapped (not one of them has a cell phone and in this respect the story seems surprisingly dated). The "Judge" has a sinister plan for them.
Despite this interesting scenario, the plot is too lacking in action, the dialogue too stilted and the narrative too laden with philosophy for this story ever really to come alive. What motivates human beings? What is the significance of memory? Where is God to be found, in suffering or in rebellion? When and why does good triumph over evil? These are essential questions and it is reassuring to find Mr. Wiesel creating characters who, however woodenly, are capable of love, of hope and, finally, of successfully challenging an oppressor.


Yasmina Reza's short novel, Desolation (Knopf, $19, 136 pages), translated from the French by Carol Brown Janeway, also treats themes of affirmation and survival but in the more normal setting of contemporary Paris.
Towards the end of the story, Samuel, an aging Frenchman full of Gallic cynicism, recalls a recent conversation with his equally skeptical friend Lionel. "Lionel phones up," he reports, "scandalized because he's just discovered that in Jewish tradition life is accorded supreme value. You must choose life, he intones disgustedly, Deuteronomy, last book of Moses. What's all this stuff about you must choose life? Explain this humiliation!" Both Samuel, who is resigned to a vague sense of disappointment and Lionel, sinking into depression, feel helpless before this biblical command. Their refuge is memory, mockery and outrage.
Samuel is particularly offended by his almost middle-aged son. A traveler, beachcomber and windsurfer, the son has renounced ambition and is described by his sister as "happy." This idle happiness offends Samuel, a man who has not only worked hard his whole life but has fought the demons of disappointment, depression, and despair. How, he wonders, is his son's serenity anything other than indifference and resignation? And how can he tolerate it at the same time that he himself is "accepting how modest a chapter in time mine has been?"
"Desolation" is the inner monologue of a man at life's end remembering wives and lovers, children, good friends and people encountered by chance, success and failure, the important and the trivial. It's both a rant and an honest meditation, wide-ranging, vibrant and funny. Yasmina Reza, whose play "Art" won a Tony Award and international acclaim, has a sure and authentic voice and this is an engaging debut novel.


Washington writer Sophy Burnham, on the other hand, is an established, prolific author whose work includes fiction, drama and social commentary as well as the bestselling "Book of Angels, Reflections on Angels Past and Present and True Stories of How They Touch Our Lives" and its follow-up "Angel Letters." This preoccupation with religious experience is evident in her new book, The Treasure of Montsegur: A Novel of the Cathars (HarperCollins, $23.95, 275 pages), a work of historical fiction based on the 12th- and 13th-century heresy of the Cathars (also called "Pure Ones" or Albigensians).
In the preface we learn that Cathars "believed that humans were fallen angels, spiritual beings captured by demons in a physical form … they eschewed all physical matter pleasures in things of the world, including sex as wrongful or illusory." Vegetarians and pacifists, they sometimes starved themselves to release the spirits they felt were imprisoned in their flesh. They also refused to acknowledge the authority of the Pope or tithe to the Catholic church and they translated the Bible into the vernacular hundreds of years before the Reformation and the religious wars fought, at least in part, over that very issue.
Such was the threat felt by the established church that Pope Innocent III called for a Christian Crusade against the Cathars and assembled an enormous army to fight them. The 10-month siege of the butte called Montsegur in Southern France ended with the mass burning at the stake of over 100 captured Cathar men and women.
In tackling this fascinating episode, Mrs. Burnham has sought to do more than just tell a good story. Her intent, clearly, is to get at the essence of the religious experience, to convey both the ecstasy of spiritual enlightenment and the torture of human doubt and the effects of each. It is an ambitious undertaking, one in which she is not always successful.
The chapters alternate, at times awkwardly, between the present, told in the first person by the fictional Jeanne of Beziers, one of three survivors of the siege at Montsegur, and the past, narrated in the third person. The plot's being complicated is not helped by unnecessary details and gratuitous sex scenes; the writing can be trite (Jeanne says she used to have "raven-black curls;" she is "helpless with longing;" she and the peasant Jerome, who is "bewitched by her beauty," are "happy as two turtledoves").
But at the end, when Jeanne confronts the choice between recanting her belief and being burned alive, when she agonizes "How do I know the will of God from my own desire?" the issue is very real for the reader. And when she is strapped to the rack and tortured, we get, perhaps, a glimmer of what it means to have faith.

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.




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