- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 27, 2004

John Auerbach’s unlikely yet true ordeal — of a man who escapes the Warsaw ghetto under a false identity, spies on the Nazis while working in a Danzig shipyard, and survives the Holocaust — is fictionalized in Tales of Grabowski (Toby Press, $19.95, 307 pages), a painful and gripping collection of connected novellas, short stories and a brief memoir.

A seaman by profession, the writer in Mr. Auerbach emerged during the latter part of his life, after a personal tragedy. Although he went on to publish 12 books of short fiction, and received first prize in the 1993 PEN/UNESCO awards, he remained largely unknown. He died in 2002, while this collection was in preparation.

David Gordon labors in the placowkas, Jewish work crews that leave the ghetto. Through the help of a prostitute he secures a false identity and is reborn as Wladyslaw Grabowski. With an invocation to Julius Caesar, “In front of the toilet bowl David said alea iacta est [the die is cast] … He then took off his white armband with the blue Star of David on it, rolled it tightly, wrapped it in a piece of newspaper, and threw it into the toilet bowl … ‘Wladyslaw Grabowski, take courage. Here you go.’”

Grabowski signs up as a foreign worker for one of the camps set up by the Nazi regime to man the war industry. He ends up in the shipyards of Danzig, and for as long as possible, passes information to the British through contacts based in Sweden.

Grabowski is then sent to stoke the boilers of freighters sailing the Baltics, where he endures beatings from the resident Nazi officer who suspects something is amiss but cannot prove it. An Allied sea mine ironically saves him while sinking the ship, and he is returned to Danzig.

Mr. Auerbach’s talent shines through his detached yet visceral narrative and his cynical observations. The story structure creates a sense of dread as David’s/Wladislaw’s travails unfold through back-and-forth fragments of memory. The author envelopes readers in Grabowski’s psychic torment — from the suffocating fear of being discovered, to the unsuccessful struggle to exist as the heartless Grabowski, and the never-ending effort to keep David buried.

In spite of himself, Grabowski becomes close to a Polish-Lithuanian couple, with near-disastrous results. “‘We did not like Jews in Vilna. That’s the thing we have in common with you Poles,’” says beautiful Elena one evening. “Grabowski felt the inside of his body crumbling. Chunks of lungs, stomach, liver were falling apart, collapsing, disintegrating. Uncoordinated images swirled before his eyes and he thought he’d vomit his heart in a moment.”

Mr. Auerbach closes the circle of this fictional account and his real-life transformations in the piece “Episodes in Autobiography.” Time has not brought him peace, just distance from memories that live on. “In any case, we should consider ourselves lucky that the only rewind button on the videotape of life is that of human memory …”

• • •

Nguyen Huy Thiep’s Crossing the River (Curbstone Press, $16.95, 352 pages) is a fascinating panorama of Vietnam: past and present, feudal and Communist, mythic and real. The 17 stories are the most comprehensive collection of his work to be published in English.

Mr. Thiep is one of the most revered writers in modern Vietnam, thus far having authored seven plays and over 50 short stories.

He appeared on the scene in the mid-1980s, when the Communist regime began to loosen controls over the country’s deteriorating, centrally-planned economy and its artistic community.

On the one hand, the stories are almost uniformly bleak; the themes revolve around the random unfairness of life and the cruelty, inconsistency and greed of people, be they peasants or townsfolk. Yet these tales are not depressing or unpalatable because the author extracts decency and compassion from each situation — not to make the reader feel better, but to prove that these positive forces always exist.

In the exquisite fairytale-like piece, “The Winds of Hua Tat,” he writes, “If you are respectable and honest, the man of the house will invite you to hear some stories. Maybe these old stories will dwell on the miseries of men, but when we understand these miseries, then wisdom, morality, nobility and humanity will bloom within us.”

Some of the tales are mythical or loosely based on historical figures, such as the trilogy “A Sharp Sword,” “Fired Gold” and “Chastity.” Reminiscent of Western sagas, they are replete with guts and gore, Vietnamese-style.

Mr. Thiep does not spare contemporary Communist society, depicting it as rife with corruption, alienation, violence, and abuse of women. “Money is king,” quips one character. In “The General Retires,” one of the most indicting stories of the collection, an elderly military man is shocked by the work his daughter-in-law must do to make money.

A number of the stories chart Vietnam’s evolving exposure to the outside world, from Abba and the Beatles to relaxed restrictions on travel. East and West come to an absurd juxtaposition during the wedding of a cousin from an ox-cart collective in “The General Retires.”

“The groom wore a black suit with a red tie … The best men were six youths, all dressed alike, in jeans, with wild facial hair. At the start of the party, a live band played ‘Ave Maria.’”

“Without a King” resembles a one-scene play. Poetry leaps out of stark prose in “Lessons of the Countryside” and “Remembrance of the Countryside.” Vivid descriptions — often encompassing refreshingly different points of reference — stir the imagination.

The author sometimes challenges his readers not to feel self-satisfied about their appreciation of his talent. In “My Uncle Hoat” the narrator says: “The crescent moon was dangling in the open sky like a gloomy brush stroke. You think that’s beautiful? Why are you always preoccupied with such senseless and unreal beauty?

“You are someone of the upper class. You’re used to being comfortable, which is why you can have such sentiments. With poor people, beauty must be something akin to actual riches.”

One gets the impression that he wants to both provoke and inspire his fellow citizens. A laborer on a quest through the countryside in “The Water Nymph” comments: “Life was a constant, frantic search for food. Prejudices and tradition weighed heavily upon these folk. I saw countless people ruined by the old patriarchal practices.”

On the other hand, in “Love Story Told on a Rainy Night,” a “poor insignificant teacher” exclaims, “Young friends, go ahead! Love! It will make you crazy and stupid, it will make you better, or worse — I don’t know — but I know for certain it is the most wonderful thing in life, the most valuable of all the treasures that God has granted us.”

Shaazka Beyerle is a Washington writer.

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