Review: The Death of the Adversary – Hans Keilson

death of the adversaryHans Keilson died in 2011 at the age of 101.  A German Jew, Keilson and his non-Jewish wife fled to the Netherlands in 1936 to avoid Nazi persecution.  The couple separated during the war while Keilson went into hiding, undertaking work among the Jewish children separated from their parents.  He reunited with his wife after the war and discovered that both his parents had been deported to Auschwitz where they had died.  In order to practice medicine in the Netherlands, Keilson had to re-qualify as a physician and later trained as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst.

While he was in hiding during the war, Keilson began work on his most significant novel Death of the Adversary in which he writes about the experience of being gradually cast out from a society which had previously been his home.  The English edition of the book has been in and out of print since 1962 but was republished by Vintage Books in 2011.

The book is written in the first person.  We join the un-named narrator living in his parent’s home (how we reviewers hate not knowing the name of the main character!).  In this case we are not even told which country the novel is located in and Keilson also deliberately anonymises the name of the dictator who slowly comes to power, giving him the title, “B” (he is of course based on Adolf Hitler).  The narrator’s father runs a photographic studio and is given to a pessimistic frame of mind which his wife finds too bleak, urging him not to voice his fears in front of their young son.

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Review: The Warsaw Anagrams – Richard Zimler

Authors comment extracted from comment list below: “Just to mention that The Warsaw Anagrams is currently on sale in the Kindle format at for the absurdly low price of £1.59″.

I don’t know how long the sale will last.I rarely pre-order books as soon as I hear about them, but when I saw that Richard Zimler was about to publish a new novel I clicked a couple of times on a book-seller’s website and waited expectantly.  I have read every one of his novels which explore some intriguing corners of Jewish history, from The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon (1996), to The Seventh Gate (2007) and know that Zimler’s novels are worth waiting for.

In this series of books we move from the 1506 massacre of Jews in Lisbon to 20th century Berlin via 16th century Goa and 19th century America – all of these books featuring the kabbalist and sage Berekiah Zarco and his like-minded descendants.

Fortunately, when The Warsaw Anagrams arrived I was pleased to discover that I was rapidly drawn into the midst of a complex  criminal investigation in a unique setting – and with touches of mysticism and Jewish philosophy thrown in.

The Warsaw Anagrams is set in 1941 Poland, most of the story taking place in the Warsaw Ghetto, with occasional (and usually disastrous) forays outside.  The story is narrated by Erik Cohen, a practicing psychiatrist before being incarcerated in the Ghetto, who we learn is a now a wandering soul, an ibbur, who has returned to revisit the scene of some terrible crimes and to pass on his story to those who will listen.  Fortunately he finds a suitable recipient for his tale in Heniek Corben who seems to take the appearance of a ghost in his stride:

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Review: The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson

Update 13 October 2010.  Depite my prediction below, The Finkler Question DID win the Booker Prize.  My congratulations to Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson’s novel The Finkler Question is another Booker long-list selection, and I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t make the short-list, although my guess is that it won’t actually win the prize.

Howard Jacobson writes with sophistication and verve.  I often found myself pausing over a sentence to take in the meaning, double, or triple sometimes, for Jacobson’s use of language is always inventive and occasionally startling.

The story centres on Julian Treslove, a former radio producer whose career has failed to rise as it should have, mainly because of his lack of focus on the task in hand and a degree of self-doubt which robs him of the certainty he needs to succeed.

Treslove has two close friends, Sam Finkler, a television producer and Jewish philosopher and the former teacher of Sam and Julian, Libor Sevcik, an elderly widower, also Jewish, who in some ways acts as a mentor to the two men.

One day, while walking near Broadcasting House Treslove is mugged and all his valuables are stolen.  Treslove is mortified to realise that his assailant is a woman.  And to complicate matters, although the words she uttered at the time of the robbery are indistinct, on further reflection, Treslove comes to believe that they were the words, “You Jew!”.

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Review Rhyming Life and Death – Amos Oz

I was drawn to Rhyming Life and Death when I read on the cover that it reflects on “writing, reading and the elusive chimera of literary posterity” .  I have a category of book on this blog entitled “books about books”, and as an avid reader, a new addition to it is a reward in itself.

Amos Oz is renowned in Israel for his courageous political stance as a secular social-democrat, having lived on a Kibbutz for thirty years and being a leading voice in the peace movement.  He has won numerous literary awards as listed in his Wikipedia entry.

In his latest novel Rhyming Life and Death, Oz addresses the nature of writing fiction by letting his readers in on the internal reflections of the “Author”, a fictional writer, who is invited to attend a public reading of his work in Tel Aviv.  During the following eight hours we read of his preparation for the reading, the event itself and then his wanderings around the city through the night-time.

The Author anticipates the questions he is likely to be asked by the audience after the reading –

  • Why do you write?
  • Why do you write the way you do?
  • Are you trying to influence your readers and if so how?
  • Do you constantly cross out and correct or do you write straight out of your head?
  • What is it like to be a famous writer?
  • Do you write with a pen or a computer?

. . . and so on, and on, and on. The Author sits in a café down the road from the literary centre to try to prepare his answers to these questions, but his thoughts are taken up by the waitress, with her “shapely, attractive legs”.  He steals a look at her face, and finds it pleasant, sunny, with her hair tied back with a red rubber band.  While he is waiting for his omelette and salad he begins to imagine her life, giving her the name “Ricky” as he writes her personal history in his head.  We, the readers, are drawn into the creative process, as “Ricky” takes form before our eyes (this is perhaps a little like looking into a mirror placed in front of another mirror – the fictional “Author” creates a fictional personal for the twice-fictional “Ricky”).

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Review: Kahn and Englemann – Hans Eichner

The English translation of Kahn and Englemann was published this year by the Canadian publisher Biblioasis, just three days after its author Hans Eichner died at the age of 87.  Eichner, an Austrian Jew, was well-placed to write this story of a Jewish family from rural Hungary as they made their way through the trials of the last century, for much of the book echoes his own family and personal history.

In the midst of the story is of course the Holocaust, but it features more as an ironic exit room for many of the Kahns and Engelmann’s, for Eichner does not dwell on the horrors, but reports that such and such “turned his face to the wall and starved to death in the Theresienstadt concentration camp” – after all, the horrors are well known, and perhaps Eichner realised that he had little to add to those more detailed accounts from other authors.  However, more on this towards the end of this review.

The story begins in Tapolca, near Lake Balaton in Hungary, where the Kahn’s are wealthy estate owners.  However, the story begins with the narrator’s grandmother, Sidonie, at the age of 17 deciding to marry a poor shoe-maker.  Nobody can persuade her otherwise, and she even escapes from virtual house-arrest to go to the boy she has chosen for herself, before long returning home expecting a baby.

Sidonie is a resourceful girl and much to her parents’ disgust, starts selling vegetables from a market stall.  She is an ambitious young woman and gets her way in everything she sets her heart on, and soon the young family are loading all their belongings onto a cart and making a terribly arduous journey to Vienna. Continue reading

Review: The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon – Richard Zimler

kabbalistThis novel, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, lays the foundation for Zimler’s magnificent Zarco series, which charts the fortunes of the descendants of Zerkiah Zarco over several centuries.  It is suprising that some readers have failed to see that this is a work of fiction – Zimler likes to mix up fact and fiction and to lay a documentary trail for his work, which while definitely fictional is based on solid historical research.

The theme of the novel is unique – I had never heard of the massacre of Jews in Lisbon in 1506, and it was fascinating to read of the cultural milieu of the time, and to see how these events impacted on the families in the Jewish ghetto.  The relationship of Jew to Gentile is described well, and shows how a delicate web of trans-cultural relationships sustained the commercial world, but how easily this could be broken in the mad rush to blame Jews for economic troubles.  Zimler shows how the progrom was led by Dominican friars who used the most inflammatory descriptions of the Jews in order to inflame the Gentile community and it is particularly shocking to see how fundamentalist Christianity can be as cruel a cult as any.

The novel is not all darkness and terror (although this features liberally!). It also contains a fine detective story as Berekiah seeks to discover who murdered his uncle Abraham, the expert Kabbalist and book illustrator.

All literature of Jewish persecution points eventually to the greater Holocaust of the last century and Zimler inevitably writes with knowledge of the far larger scale events of Nazi Germany.  And indeed his readers too cannot help but look ahead to see how the Lisbon progroms forshadowed the rabid persecutions of the Hitler regime.  It is important in my view to read this book as the first volume of Zimler’s epic story of the Zarco line, and having come to his work through the latest book, The Seventh Gate, it is fascinating to see the roots of the later work in this, the first volume.