It's very popular these days to declare historical fiction irrelevant, a wallowing in nostalgia, rife with over-moralizing and easy answers. Perhaps this is occasionally true, even often true, but this position strikes me as intellectually lazy, and dismissive of the obvious fact that everything that's ever happened is now history. To suggest that writing about the past is somehow dismissive of the present is the literary equivalent of teenagers rolling their eyes when grandparents try to tell them what things were like when they were children.
The teenager believes that everything he needs to know about the world is happening right in front of him, that what he sees at that moment is all there is or ever will be. The grandparent is trying to tell him something about the world as it once was and therefore is now - the past is a story that exists in its connection to the present.
This idea is very much at the centre of Toronto writer Alison Pick's second novel, Far to Go. Anneliese, our narrator, is a Holocaust researcher; she is anti-social, friendless and alone. She spends her days in her office collecting the letters of those who perished, cataloguing and recording them. While you understand that she's dedicated her life to her research, she doesn't tell you why. But to her, the past is a story, and that story shapes our lives with as much force as any concrete fact.
The story shifts between a narration of Anneliese's life and the lives of a group of Czechoslovakian Jews in the lead up to the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939. Marta Mueller is nanny to the Bauer family's one son, Pepik. Her employer, Pavel Bauer, is the owner of a successful textile factory. As Hitler gains control over Czechoslovakia, their assets and lives become endangered much the way any Czech Jew's life would have unravelled in the late 1930s.
Writing about the Holocaust is a tricky business. It's very easy to end up writing a book that says little more than "Nazis were bad guys." While this is certainly true, I think at this point no one really needs to read a book to be convinced of this. Pick steers well clear of this oversimplification. What is compelling about her depiction of the Bauer family's life is how almost mundane the slide into inhumanity was.
At the beginning of the novel, Marta is engaged in an affair with Ernst, the married foreman of Pavel Bauer. Marta may or may not be Jewish (her family history is muddy and unpleasant, and she's not really sure) and Ernst is definitely not. In the lead up to a clandestine encounter between the two in Pavel's factory, he suggests to Marta that the Jews have a particular and unpleasant smell. Marta is aghast at this suggestion, and he replies, "I'm not the only one saying it," and then, after some reflection, says, "I'm not saying it."
Gradually, though, his feelings shift, and when he sees that it is possible for him to engineer a situation in which he can essentially steal Pavel Bauer's money and factory from him, his rhetoric shifts. Pick's portrayal of the insidiousness of greed and how it creates hatred is subtle and chilling.
Initially, Marta believes that nothing bad will happen to the Bauer family, and therefore her, because they aren't "really Jewish," meaning that they aren't religiously observant. Much rationalization takes place; opportunities to leave the country are not taken, because of the belief that everything will be resolved, or that it may affect someone else but not them, or out of a sheer stubbornness to protect a life and standing that standards of fairness should not allow to be taken away.
Slowly, though, all these rationalizations are chipped away at, dismantled and proved false, until their fate is unavoidable. Pick never tries to hide from the reader that they all die in Auschwitz. This decision is a wise one: You know while reading that these characters have no hope of escape, and so you stop hoping for their escape, which allows you to focus on the small moments of human interaction that are the strength of this book.
Marta is an extremely compelling character. She knows what Ernst is up to but never warns Pavel; she makes mistakes that make you want to give her a good hard shake; she never confesses small things which may have saved both herself and the Bauers, but she is entirely human and credible and convincing.
The writing in Far to Go is clean, crisp and unencumbered. Pick never dwells for too long in an image or metaphor, and she creates small moments that are both lovely and frightening. At slightly more than 300 pages, the book resists the urge to overstay its welcome. It's very deftly structured and the storytelling is seamless. With rights sold in the United States, Britain, Holland and Italy, Far to Go appears poised to gain a wide and significant readership, and deservedly so.
Steven Galloway is the author of three novels, most recently The Cellist of Sarajevo.
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