Luckily I tend to buy Pereine’s tri-annual volumes without considering the author (who I am unlikely to have heard of) or the subject matter: no other publisher seems to have such an uncanny knack of unearthing previously untranslated literary gems. I say ‘luckily’ because such ignorance prevented me coming to Hanna Krall’s story of the Holocaust with any expectations. So many books, fiction and non-fiction, have been published on the subject of the Holocaust that, each time a new one appears, there is an increasing danger that we will assume that there is nothing new to be said, no revelatory way left of looking – and without that ability to make us see the known in a way that makes it unknown again, literature is not fulfilling its function.
Luckily (again) Hanna Krall’s novel, Chasing the King of Hearts, does just that. It is a story of survival (not without its own luck) and love in Poland during the Nazi occupation. Izolda escapes from the Warsaw Ghettoby bribing a soldier; later she manages to get her husband, Shayek, out through the sewers. Life outside depends entirely on not being recognised as Jewish: she worries that a gesture of her father’s might be identified as “Jewish gesticulation”; when she first gets out she stares at her bag on the floor:
“Does the bag look Jewish there? She tries the sofa, the stool, the chair. Because if it does, what exactly about the bag is Jewish?”
To survive you must focus only on survival. When Izolda is arrested (but not recognised as Jewish) she sees her husband’s mother in the prison:
“His mother will give her way with a look, a gesture…
“…her own mother-in-law is walking to her death and Izolda is asking the Mother of God to make her step more quickly.”
When Izolda is arrested again later she is relieved that it is because she has been mistaken for a prostitute rather than as a Jew.
Izolda’s survival is, to her, a facet of her husband’s survival. When he is captured she lives only for his letters, undertaking desperate tasks to earn the money she thinks can help him. Her own continued life becomes purposeful only so he can live. When she is eventually sent to Auschwitz she hopes he kindness to others will be to her husband‘s credit with God:
“Do you see? I’m helping her. Don’t forget: We have a deal.”
Izolda’s survival is never in doubt as Krall includes post-war scenes in Israel throughout the narrative where her out-of-placeness (she doesn’t speak Hebrew) seems another indictment of the war’s injustice. The novel is split into many short (one to two page) chapters echoing the moment to moment nature of survival. It works in two ways: Izaldo’s love offering some form of redemption for the surrounding horror (whether her husband is ‘worth it’ or not is irrelevant) while at the same time highlighting it. Her striving for life is a tiny light in a landscape of death.