Learning to speak again

Rebecca Newman reviews Lovely Green Eyes by Arnost Lustig and War Story by Gwen Edelman.

ARNOST LUSTIG survived Auschwitz. Every fibre of his latest book,Lovely Green Eyes, resonates with the pain, the questions and the scars of the Holocaust. The eyes of the title belong to Skinny, a 15-year-old Jewish girl deported to Auschwitz. She watches thousands as they are marched from the train to the gas chambers, and joins the remainder, who must grind the bones of the dead to make fertiliser, or attend the sick bay to be used in scientific experiments - all the time breathing air thick with ashes.

One day she witnesses a German doctor transplant "a large patch of skin from a Jewish subhuman" in an urgent operation on an SS officer. The doctor is immediately sent to the Eastern Front; Skinny, realising that "in the morning she would be going up in smoke", manages to escape into an Aryan field-brothel. There she has to service 14 or 15 men a day, hiding her identity at all costs.

Lustig is unafraid to depict the unflinching German drive towards supremacy. From Skinny's cubicle, Obersturmführer Stefan Sarazin propounds his vision of a pure breed populating the lands from the Rhine to the Urals, and of "a victory such as has never been won before".

High on the audacity of this strategy, Sarazin explains to Skinny how his "Einsatzgruppen were uprooting the world where people were living in luxury at the expense of others. [That] the key word was Endlosung, the Final Solution. A breathtaking concept. The end. Ruination." There is a primal allure in the Nazis' acknowledgement of "brutality as the supreme virtue, as the call and command of nature".

Inevitably though, the reader's nascent, tentative engagement is broken. The figure of Sarazin is undercut by his sexual aberrations and sadism; the glory of the Reich is shattered by the image of corpses heaped in pits which the dead dug themselves, or by bald fact: "Unlike to the Terezin ghetto, Eidmann came to Hungary late, managing to kill only half the Hungarian Jews, some 400,000."

Primo Levi believed that his writing on the Holocaust was not only a "moral duty [but also] a psychological need". In Lustig's words, too, there is a sense of catharsis, of expiation. There is also transcending hope. As the Rabbi in his book observes, "We shall have to learn to speak again in order to understand one another". Lovely Green Eyes is a part of this.

In Gwen Edelman's War Story (168pp, Bloomsbury, £12.99), Joseph, an eminent writer, also transmutes the horror of his past by voicing it. Against a backdrop of Eighties New York, he recounts a series of stories to his lover, Kitty. When he was 11, his parents sent him from Vienna to the safety of Amsterdam, and there he hid throughout the war, using, abusing and loving women to keep himself alive - then, as now, the only escape from the nightmare is "between the thighs of a woman". As he talks, he presses on her schnapps and dark bread slathered in goose fat, unable to trust that there is really peace and abundant food.

Joseph is a vital and eloquent rogue; but Kitty is merely an adequate foil. In addition, his solipsism and the inconsistencies of his tales diminish the power of the memories, reducing this debut novel to a good, rather than a great, read.

Original article published in The Daily Telegraph, in May, 2002

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