Another book about the Holocaust? Well, yes, but this book is not just about what happened during the Second World War, what unspeakable atrocities were committed and how brutally people’s lives were either torn to pieces or ripped from them. It is also about what happened before those atrocities and what happens after. It is about complicity in those crimes, and about the lasting scars they left, on the victims and on wider society, scars that the book’s young protagonist, Mira, is not yet aware of, but the people around her are.
Based on real events, Alena Mornštajnová’s book, first published in 2017, has been hugely successful in the Czech Republic, having sold two hundred thousand copies and won numerous awards. It has also been translated into more than a dozen languages. Despite the slightly corny cover to the English edition of the book, Alena Mornštajnová skilfully avoids the trap of the current trend for Holocaust literature, with its ‘librarians’, ‘tattooists’ and ‘butchers of Auschwitz’. Instead of describing the atrocities in minute detail, or even theatricalizing them, ‘Instagram-style’, she lets the silences speak for themselves. A much more powerful and impactful method, if you ask this reader.
The book is structured in a very effective way, with great rhythm and with distinct, differing, pitch-perfect voices. It is also expertly translated by the wife-and-husband duo, Julia and Peter Sherwood. Interestingly, as Julia revealed in a recent podcast she recorded for Trafika Europe Radio, the story of the Heller family in some ways reflects her own family’s history.
There are two main storylines in the book, split into three distinct parts, each with a different narrator and therefore a different tone and perspective. The first part is told by the nine-year-old Mira. It is the 1950s, and an outbreak of typhoid in Mira’s home town sweeps away her whole family: her mother, father and two young siblings. After a stint with the family of her mother’s friend Ivana, the girl ends up with her rather strange aunt, Hana, who managed to survive the disease. The second part is narrated in the third person and tells the story of Mira’s family’s past – the rise of fascism and antisemitism, the outbreak of war and finally their fates in Theriesenstadt and Auschwitz. The focal point of this part of the book is the guilt Hana is tormented by – she feels responsible for her parents’ death. The last part is told by Hana herself, mainly about her experiences on the way to Theresienstadt, inside the camp, and then in Auschwitz.
In some ways Hana’s and Mira’s stories mirror each other. Or rather, Mira’s is a retelling of Hana’s story, with a better ending. When I was a child, I had a habit of imagining good endings to the nightmares that would wake me up in the early hours of the morning. Mira is the good ending to Hana’s nightmare.
Reviewed by Anna Blasiak
Written by Alena Mornštajnová
Translated from the Czech by Julia and Peter Sherwood
Published by Parthian (2020)
Anna Blasiak is a writer, poet and translator. She has translated over 40 books from English into Polish and, mainly as Anna Hyde, Polish into English. She is a co-translator (with Marta Dziurosz) of Renia’s Diary by Renia Spiegel. Her bilingual poetry book, Café by Wren’s St James-in-the-Fields, Lunchtime, is out from Holland House Books. Lili. Lili Stern-Pohlmann in conversation with Anna Blasiak is out this week. annablasiak.com.
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