Book review: Chasing the King of Hearts, By Hanna Krall, trans. Philip Boehm

Amazing but true, this romance fuses passion and tension

Marek Kohn
Thursday 17 October 2013 16:12

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.

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