Kenneth Bonert – The Mandela Plot

kenneth-bonert-the-mandela-plot
Kenneth Bonert – The Mandela Plot

Life is well regulated in South Africa at the end of the 1980s. Apartheid rules and black and white only meet when the former serves or received commands from the later. Thing are only slightly different in the Jewish Helger household in Johannesburg; having survived the Holocaust, the parents developed a more humane attitude than most of their white fellows. Yet, their routines change with the arrival of an American exchange teacher. Annie Goldberg has come to teach at a primary school in one of the townships – a place none of the Helger family would ever go to. 16-year-old Martin is fascinated by the pretty and radical woman. Her political opinion drastically differs from his parents’ point of view and soon he finds himself in the middle of the struggles to fight for freedom for the oppressed peoples’ hero Nelson Mandela.

The beginning of the novel is immediately captivating. Just as Martin is fascinated by this strange American, the reader also falls for her charisma. She is a freedom fighter who can easily convince her audience with her statements on the current political situation in a way that you just have to agree – knowing that things might be a lot more complicated. The double complex of having a Jewish survivor family who went through oppression by the Nazi regime gives the novel an even more complicated background.

I especially appreciated the long debates between the Helgers and Goldberg, they gave a precise picture of South Africa of that time and the contradicting positions were thus well established. However, even though this was very interesting, it did not add to the suspense. Since the novel is promoted as “literary thriller”, I’d have expected a bit more of that.

At some point of the story, I got a bit lost. Even though I liked the protagonist Martin and his development is well motivated and largely plausible, the plot was a bit unsatisfactory. At the end, I even had the impression that there was a certain lack of idea of how to finish it at all, the solution chosen did everything but convince me. All in all, I had the impression that the novel wanted to be too much: a thriller, historical fiction, coming-of-age and also the specific aspects of the surviving Jew – it obviously cannot serve all expectations aroused and therefore to conclude, it is only partly recommendable.

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Mark Sarvas – Memento Park

mark-sarvas-memento-park
Mark Sarvas – Memento Park

Matt Santos is standing in an auction hall, looking at a picture, Budapest Street Scene by Ervin Kálmán. It will be sold the next day and he is ruminating about how this picture came to let him know more about his family than he ever did before and how it changed his life completely. His father had warned him about it, told him to let go, not to pursue the case any further, but he wouldn’t listen. So he is standing there on his own, alone, with his thoughts about his ex-girl-friend Tracy, whom he still loves, his lawyer Rachel, who helped him to get hold of the picture, and about his now deceased father.

Memento Park is not easy to summarise. It’s a novel about art, Jewish art in Nazi Europe; it’s about a complicated father-son relationship; it’s a story about people leaving their past behind and burying it down in the back of their minds after emigration; it’s about love and trust, and about religion and the faith you have and to what extent this creates your identity.

Matt is the child of Jewish family who suffered in Budapest under the Nazis, yet he doesn’t know anything about it. Even though he was never told anything about his family’s history, it lives on in him and through the relationship with his father. A father who does not seem to be loving or at least a bit affectionate. He is always distant and until the very end, Matt doesn’t understand why and he never asked. To me, this is the central aspect of the novel, even though I found the Kálmán story, his life and word, even though completely fictional but close to the stories of some artists of that time, also interesting.

Mark Sarvas chose an interesting title for his novel, “Memento Park” is the name of a location in Budapest where all the statues of former communist grandees are exhibited. It’s a way of dealing with the past, neither hiding nor ignoring it, but giving it a place where you can confront it; it’s just a part of life and it helped to shape – here to town and country – but also you as a person. In this way, there are more layers to the novel which make it a great reading experience.

Heather Morris – The Tattooist of Auschwitz

heather-morris-the-tattooist-of-auschwitz
Heather Morris – The Tattooist of Auschwitz

When times become hard for Jews in 1942 Slovakia, Ludwig Eisenberg, named Lale, decides to save his family and to present himself to the enemy. After some days waiting he is transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, today the synonym with Nazi cruelty. He soon attracts attention due to his knowledge of several languages and his ability to cope with people. He becomes the tattooist of Auschwitz, the person who replaces the peoples’ names with a number on their wrist. Lale’s extraordinary capabilities make him wander between the lines, on the one hand, he serves the Nazis, on the other, he supports the Jews and gypsies in the camp. When He first sees Gita, he completely falls for her. But a concentration camp is not the best scenery for a love story, especially since you never know if you will die tomorrow.

Heather Morris has written a compelling story in one of the most awful places the Nazi regime has created. Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest concentration camp where more than one million persons found death during the second world war and where Josef Mengele carried out is gruesome experiments, is today a museum and remembrance site which aims at preventing such a thing from happening ever again.

The story is based on the narration of the real Lale Eisenberg who later called himself Sokolov when he, after surviving the Holocaust, started a new life first in Slovakia and then Australia. It is incredible to read about his life in the camp, especially considering the fact that he as a kind of collaborator was relatively well off. Those who are burnt in the gas chambers, those who fell prey to Menegle’s experiments and all the ones who died from hunger or illness are only on the fringes of the story. So after all, we actually get one of the happier sides of being held prisoner under unimaginable conditions even though this one isn’t free of tragedy either.

But it is not only the story itself which is moving, it is also the author’s style which makes the book stand out. Most of the narration is in chronological order, only towards the end Lale has some kind of flashbacks of the time before he came to the camp. He never would have guessed that they were in real danger, that Hitler would invade Slovakia and certainly not all that he sees in Auschwitz. Morris makes the reader actually feel what Lale feels, quite often his emotions are palpable which makes the story go deep inside you. Especially in the moments when he is separated from Gita or close to death.

Since it is based on a true story, this is certainly a life which needed to be told and which should be read about widely.

Joshua Cohen – Moving Kings

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Joshua Cohen – Moving Kings

David King is the head of “King’s Moving“, a New York based family business specialised in moving homes. Couples moving in together, couples going separate ways. David and his wife Bonnie also separated, their daughter Tammy wastes his father’s money and his secretary Ruth now manages not only the office but all of David’s life. There is just one thing she cannot help him with: David’s cousin from Israel asked him to welcome her son Yoav for some time. He just came out of the IDF and like all the others, needs some travelling to forget the years in the army. David has only met Yoav once many years ago when he spent a couple of hours with his family in Jerusalem. But he is sure to offer the young man exactly what he needs, not taking into account what serving in one of the world’s toughest armies means.

Joshua Cohen’s novel appears in the beginning to be some lightweight and funny story about making business in New York and knowing (or rather: not knowing) the rules of conduct among the super-rich. David is not the classic businessman who knows his way around the upper class, he disposes of some cleverness which helped him to set up his business, but he is not really familiar with the codes. The same applies to his visit in Israel a couple of years earlier. As a Jew, he feels like having to know the historic sites in Israel but cannot connect anything with the places – just like his cousin who shows him around. When family duty calls, in form of accommodating young Yoav, he does not hesitate to fulfil the wish.

However, with the appearance of Yoav, the novel changes its tone. It is not the humorous atmosphere which prevails now, but a rather despairing and depressive mood that comes from Yoav and takes over. Having served three years in the IDF did not go without scars for him. He was in a special unit which was of no special use in peaceful times but well equipped for the emergency. Now as a civilian, he has serious problems integrating into normal life. He can only accomplish small tasks every day and spends most of his time on the couch doing nothing. He can hardly cope with being alive, not speaking of building friendships and a new life in a foreign country.

The novel takes another turn when Yoav’s fried Uri makes his appearance. Being allocated the same unit should have created a lifelong bond, but the young men are very different and their diverting points of view create more and more tension between them. Yoav is reflecting on his place in the world and what he has seen and done in the army:

“you can’t stop being a soldier, just like you can’t stop being a Jew […] You were born a soldier, because you were born a Jew. “ (pos. 1392)

By birth he is denied the chance of making a choice in his life. And as an Israeli, people will never be impartial when they meet him. Everybody has an opinion, either on Jews, or in Israelis, or on both. They are held responsible for things they are neither responsible for nor had a chance to do something about it.

A third party is contrasted with them. A black veteran who fought in Vietnam and has lost in belief in the Christian God as well as the American state who should take care of those who have served the country abroad. His only way out is converting to Islam and seeking refuge in addiction. So, who of them is worse off? The forgotten veteran, the black American, the American Jew or the Israeli Jew?

How defining is religion after all? For most of the characters it does not provide help or relief from everyday burdens. It also does not seem to provide a framework to organise their life around. So, build your life without it, but what are the rules then? It seems to be a minefield and you can only survive of you are stronger and live at the expenses of the others it seems.