Peirene Press, £12 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop
Book review: Chasing the King of Hearts, By Hanna Krall, trans. Philip Boehm
Amazing but true, this romance fuses passion and tension
Friday 18 October 2013
Izolda Regensberg thought her story was so extraordinary that it should be made into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor - who indeed looked right for the part. The Polish writer Hanna Krall, who like Izolda survived the Nazi genocide of the Jews in the cauldron of central Europe, turned to the director Krzysztof Kiezlowski for advice on a Hollywood-style treatment.
That didn't work out, but she returned to the story and told it in an arresting style that rises in remarkable fashion to the challenge such a history poses to any narrator, combining steely lyricism with a thriller's tension. The photographs in the closing pages act as a subtly timed reminder that this is not a novel.
It is certainly a love story, albeit of a singular and mysterious kind. Izolda meets Shayek in occupied Warsaw; they marry; they are separated by force. These are the only facts that matter to Izolda as streets are razed, nations dismembered, relatives executed and communities eviscerated. A logician would need just a couple of briskly chalked lines to state the problem on a blackboard: she and Shayek are the two parts of a single unit; the goal is to reduce the distance between them to zero. But a statistician would need an impossible number of zeroes to express the probability of succeeding.
To have any kind of a chance, she has to keep moving. Survival means living by her wits, passing as not Jewish, delivering messages or goods – once, a jar of cyanide – for money, giving in to sexual coercion from blackmailing policemen. She is captured repeatedly, but achieves an astonishing mobility, trekking across the core of the Nazi Reich. Although she ends up on a train to Auschwitz, Izolda's story is of travelling rather than of being transported.
She is left with the inevitable questions about why she survived while those around her perished. Luck, of course, and agility, but the key is the logic of love that turns survival into a mission. She gave her man her heart; she cannot survive without it, so she has to keep going till she finds him.
Yet this love itself remains mysterious, for we're given little reason to think Shayek reciprocates it, and Izolda's own psyche remains largely hidden. After Auschwitz is liberated, she discovers Shayek at another camp. Having spent the war as the secret agent of a marriage, without a commander, she feels "joy and unbounded relief" when he tells her to straighten her legs. "Their rightful owner has returned," she thinks, understanding liberation in her own paradoxical way.
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Cyclist who knocked down three-year-old girl says his life has been 'destroyed'
- 2 A politically correct lefty goes to see Top Gear live – you'll probably believe what happened next
- 3 Young Preston fan has play-off hero Jermaine Beckford's shirt stolen from him at Wembley - which then appears for sale on Gumtree
- 4 Isis burns woman alive for refusing to engage in 'extreme' sex act, UN says
- 5 Puerto Rico, island of lost dreams: People are leaving the debt-hit territory in droves as near neighbour Cuba's star rises
Stolen Instagram photo sells for $90,000
Art Garfunkel calls Paul Simon a 'monster' with a Napoleon complex
Eurovision 2015 winner: Sweden beats Russia and Italy to take the title from Conchita Wurst
Dheepan, film review: Palme d'Or prize goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Game of Thrones, The Gift, Season 5, Episode 7: Why two of the show’s most iconic characters just met
As a white man, I'm surprised more women aren't tweeting the hashtag #KillAllWhiteMen
Scotland may have to leave the EU even if it votes to stay in, David Cameron confirms
The day that Britain resigned as a global power
SNP fury as HS2 finds 'no business case' for taking fast train service to Scotland
EU referendum: David Cameron to deny EU migrants and under-18s the chance to vote
A nation of inequality: How the UK is failing to feed its most vulnerable people