Before and After
Far to Go by Alison Pick
Headline Review 2011
The List by Martin Fletcher
Thomas Dunne Books 2011
In one way it’s curious that Anne Frank’s diary has become by far the most pre- eminent Holocaust text, because it is also the most oblique. Its power emanates from something never seen directly by its writer. Since the focus is primarily on the claustrophobic world of the secret annexe where the Dutch Frank family and their friends hid from the Nazis, there is a constant tension with what we as readers know about events taking place in the world outside, and what will happen in the future. We understand that all the daily indignities, deprivations and fear Anne describes were in vain — the Franks would be discovered and deported to Bergen-Belsen.
The massive literature which has blossomed since the diary’s first publication in 1947 has told us what Anne could only speculate about — laying bare the monstrosities of the Holocaust in chilling detail. The shootings, starvings, gassings, burnings, beatings and torture, the unbearable suffering and unimaginable cruelty. But where do we go once horror and pity have been utterly exhausted? The next chapter, at least for some writers, is a move back to the kind of obliqueness achieved by Anne Frank. To the before and the afterwards, to the scars of the survivors, to the ripples cast outward and onward. Two recent novels tackle the events from opposite chronological directions — one starting with the prelude to the war, and the other the fall-out from it. It’s an oblique approach which, in the right hands, has the quiet power to disturb.
The Booker long-listed Far to Go begins in the tense months before the war, when time is running out for the Bauer family. They are prosperous, secular Jews living in an unnamed Sudetenland town in 1938. In the growing turmoil, they will put their only son on the Kindertransport before ending up on transits to Birkenau. That alone would be a familiar story, but Pick tells her story simultaneously from different points in time, spinning a spider’s web of complexity and nuance.
Both in time and place we are at one remove from the events at the black heart of the novel. Everything is anchored within the Bauer household, with the bigger political developments mediated through a prism – the gaze of the Bauer’s faithful nanny Marta. It is she who learns about what’s happening in the world outside by listening to her employer discussing politics and who feels the consequences when her beloved charge, Pepik, is made to sit at the back of the class, or when he wets his bed. On Kristallnacht, she watches aghast from behind the curtains as Nazi thugs smash up and torch a Jewish shop, and beat the owner to death on the pavement outside.
But there’s more to this than Marta’s naïve perspective on ominous events in the world outside. For this becomes very much a book very much preoccupied with the emotional wasteland beyond the war. Inserted between the chapters of narrative are letters, only some of which are written by familiar characters. The only thing we know for certain about each is their death, as each ends in a similar way, ‘(FILE UNDER: Bauer, Rosa. Died Birkenau, 1943)’
Following each letter is a confessional passage from a contemporary speaker, whose identity we can only guess at, speaking directly to someone else. A survivor, but which survivor? And how does this mysterious historian fit into the story of the Bauers? Slowly the evidence mounts to a further twist in the plot, but we must unravel the layers and straighten out the ambiguities to find out what it is. This becomes a story of multiple betrayals and devastating guilt, a future overshadowed by the past, and lives consumed by gaping absences.
The story of the Bauer family alone would be just another, sadly familiar Holocaust tale. But Pick is less interested in the details of the Final Solution than in the psychological consequences for the survivors. Thrust onto a train, arriving in a strange country among unfamiliar people, cut off from all that was known and familiar. What were the consequences of such an experience? Guilt, of course, but she suggests something far worse than that. A life determined by absence, ‘The gnawing longing, the desire to keep searching even when your rational mind knows everyone involved is gone.’
It’s that very longing which is explored further in Martin Fletcher’s The List. The year is 1945 and Edith and Georg are a young married couple trying to rebuild their shattered lives in a boarding house in Swiss Cottage. Both have made narrow escapes from Vienna alone, leaving family and home behind as the Nazis tightened their stranglehold on Europe. Like Alison Pick’s Pepik, Edith has been pushed onto a train by loving parents.
Here again the action is anchored within a domestic setting, at a distance from the portentous events that are central to the plot. The lounge of the Goldhurst Terrace lodgings is a place where a group of young refugees living with the consequences of the Holocaust commiserate over a cup of rationed tea.
The murder of millions of Jews haunts the text, although the reader only catches an occasional glimpse of its reality in characters like Edith’s cousin Anna, a lost soul ‘strange and distant, blank’ who arrives unexpectedly in their world with her flashbacks and nightmares, her hair still close cropped and a livid tattoo on her arm. Instead, we are led to discover, through Georg and Edith, the coping mechanisms, the black humour and the investment in domestic life which makes the knowledge of the past bearable. Edith is pregnant, but her excitement about the new life within her acts a constant reminder of the family that she has lost.
The hinterland of Edith and Georg’s story is the catastrophe that has engulfed their country and annihilated their community, friends and family. The list of the title is kept by Georg, which contains the names of relatives he and Edith are hoping to find. Scouring the offices of the refugee charities and Jewish organisations for news of survivors from camps and ghettos, he gradually crosses off one name after another. Finally there are only two names left — Edith’s father and his sister. But nobody, in the chaos of post-war Europe, seems to know whether they are alive or not. In both books, the survivors are left clinging to paper relics of the past —Georg’s list, the letters of Far To Go, a single photograph kept by Pepik.
Martin Fletcher depicts a post-war Hampstead heaving with Jewish refugees who frequent the Finchleystrasse, eating at the Cosmo and Dorice restaurants, their nostalgia for home refracted through black humour while they grapple with the idiosyncrasies of their adopted country and wait for news. The waiting defines them, as Fletcher describes: ‘They were all living the same blocked life. They couldn’t go anywhere until they knew.’
The Swiss Cottage that Fletcher describes is familiar to many second generation refugee children, including me, but here its cosiness is shot through with bleakness. While the cheerful couple who run the boarding house, Sally and Albert Barnes, are welcoming and tolerant up to a point, the mood elsewhere in Hampstead is turning sour. With fascist yobs patrolling the streets, a petition is raised to have refugees deported in order to free up accommodation for demobbed soldiers.
As the temperature rises, events in Palestine add to the ferment. Terrorist gangs have targeted the British troops enforcing the mandate, and they have Sergeant Eric Barnes, son of Sally and Albert, in their sights. A living link between London and Palestine, his fate threatens the precarious new lives of the émigré community. More explosive still, the terrorists have decided to take the fight with the British on their home turf with a bold plan to shoot Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin in Pall Mall. The political ramifications of a successful hit would be catastrophic for the Finchleystrasse circle.
With the pieces set in place, Fletcher brings it to a dramatic dénouement, plotting his double narrative with meticulous care against a grainy backdrop of post-war London. Martin Fletcher is a foreign correspondent with a distinguished track record in the Middle East, and he’s combined his expertise with his family background to write a page turning thriller, at the same time both wryly comic and memorable.
Fletcher knows his facts but, ever the journalist, sometimes loves them too much, overburdening us at times with unnecessary back-story. Pick writes with a greater delicacy of touch which means that the facts of Far to Go fall more gradually into place, keeping us guessing until the very last about the true identity of the different narrators and the path that has brought them to this place. The truth, when it comes, is shattering.