Corsair, £7.99, 323pp from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Warsaw Anagrams, By Richard Zimler
Friday 11 March 2011
Erik, a distinguished elderly psychoanalyst, has to leave his comfortable flat and move into the Warsaw Ghetto, the walled "island" where the Jews were confined during the Nazi occupation of Poland. In the tiny flat of his niece, Stefa, and her nine year-old son Adam, he must not just adapt to a frozen, starving life on the edge of death, but learn to overcome his selfishness. It is the child Adam who sets the old man on this road.
In his eighth novel, Richard Zimler reaches the very heart of his essential theme: the Holocaust itself. It is as if, in his previous books dealing with the persecutions of Jews in the 16th, 18th and 20th centuries, he had been approaching, in narrowing circles, this extraordinarily painful moment.
This book is set in 1940-41 inside the Ghetto itself. It is narrated by a dead man. How could it be otherwise? This is no story of heroic struggle and escape. The Warsaw Anagrams is about the everyday frailties and courage of a varied cast of ordinary Jews. They stink, their teeth fall out, children risk their lives to steal rotting vegetables, young women sell themselves. Almost all died and the dead man, Erik, an "ibbur" or spirit wandering the world, is the fitting recorder of their lives.
The Warsaw Anagrams is a highly realist (despite being narrated by an ibbur) murder mystery. As in The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Zimler's 1998 bestseller, the narrator sets out in the midst of massacre to solve one killing. The murder of Adam, whom Erik loved and was responsible for protecting, removes all future from his life. One might wonder, why bother with one person's death, when slaughter is all around? "We owe uniqueness to our dead" is the imperative that Erik comes to understand. By remembering the uniqueness of each dead person, that person's humanity is maintained and the Nazis defeated in their desire to reduce the Jews to nameless ash.
Surprisingly perhaps, Zimler's book has an optimistic feel. If you look squarely at brutality and find that even in the harshest situations people are capable of kindness and loyalty, then optimism can sprout. As in all Zimler's fiction, there are bad and good Jews and non-Jews, people with mixed motives - including. non-Jewish Poles who die because they protect Jews. His style too assists optimism. It is clear, direct, full of ordinary pleasures: a cigarette, the joy of children singing or the sun peeking through storm clouds. This straightforward style is not sentimental or simple, but laced with subtle psychology.
Erik succeeds in telling his story. The dead are remembered. The Warsaw Anagrams is both a fast-moving, very readable mystery novel and a rich, serious book, in which Zimler makes us face the worst and pays tribute to those who died in the Holocaust.
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