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.
tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods
tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 President of Argentina adopts Jewish godson to 'stop him turning into a werewolf'
- 2 ALS ice bucket challenge co-founder Corey Griffin drowns, aged 27
- 3 The 'Black Museum': After 150 years, public set to see exhibits from police’s grisly crime museum
- 4 AirAsia flight QZ8501 missing: Search for plane carrying 162 passengers from Indonesia to Singapore suspended overnight
- 5 Naomi Wolf reacts to Isis 'conspiracy theories' critism after she questions whether beheading videos are real
Downton Abbey Christmas special 2014, review: Love is everywhere, actually
The golden age of TV comedy is here
The Boy in the Dress, TV review: David Walliams' Boxing Day treat is a celebration of being different
The Interview finally gets US release after Sony hack and terror threats – but reviews of North Korea satire are mixed
From Marvel to Star Wars: The rise of cinema’s shared universes
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Millions of Britons struggling to feed themselves and facing malnourishment
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Nigel Farage: Ukip leader named 'Briton of the year' by The Times
Immigrants make UK racist, says Ukip councillor Trevor Shonk