Searching for Schindler, By Thomas Keneally

Clichéd chronicle of the novelist and his famous tale of a heroic saviour

Reviewed,Julia Pascal
Monday 03 November 2008 01:00

It starts so well. In 1980, Thomas Keneally walks into a Beverly Hills leather-goods store. He needs a briefcase. The proprietor, Leopold Poldek, an elderly Polish Jew, hears that Keneally is a novelist and pitches the life story of Oskar Schindler to him. When Keneally hears this drama from one of Schindler's Jews, the idea for Schindler's Ark is born.

So far, so good. The improbable meeting of a Polish survivor and an Australian novelist inspired a Booker winner, rewarding Keneally with fame and finance. Publicised as fiction so that it might enter the Booker, the book was later marketed as a true story. When Steven Spielberg bought the movie rights, Keneally wanted to write the screenplay but was unable to make the transition from page to screen. So he capitalises here on his previous success by keeping the story hot. This second book details the making of Schindler's Ark, and the production of Schindler's List.

Keneally could have shared a disturbing voyage into the ethics of profiting from so much horror. Instead, he gives a tedious description of his journeys, banal domestic details and moments of homespun philosophy. His style is sometimes clumsy, often superficial and occasionally cliché-ridden. Keneally admits his lack of experience of the European Jewish world and of Holocaust history when he first meets Poldek. This book shows how little progress has been made. Keneally writes of the Jews as "a race". If he had read the Nuremberg Laws he would know that this is how Hitler saw the Jews and that such categorisation led to the Final Solution.

There is a sycophantic quality to his descriptions of meeting Spielberg, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley. And there is an uneasiness in his meeting Emilie Schindler, who worked with her husband Oskar to save Jews. His presentation of her as an embittered figure, who opposed the film as it gave her no recognition, leaves a bad taste. Keneally may have wanted to chronicle how one strange meeting led to a major movie, and a radical change in his own fortunes, but this only emphasises his naivety with such a sensitive history. Had he written this memoir for his grandchildren and published it privately, it might have been a wiser decision.

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