Category Archives: WW II

‘A Bookshop In Berlin’ Francoise Frenkel

Book #9

Francoise Frenkel was born to be a bookseller. Books were her favorite gifts right from childhood. Such was her love for books that the bookshelf that she had custom made for her sixteenth birthday had glass walls on all four sides and was promptly placed in the middle of her bedroom.

Born in Poland, life took her to Paris, “for long years of study and work.’ For someone who spent every spare moment of hers “along the riverbanks in front of the bouquinistes’ old, damp cases of books,” it was only natural that she started working in a bookshop.

The First World War left its aftermath on her homeland and home. Returning to Poland she finds her home almost bare and with no trace of her beloved books and her dream bookshelf. However, when the time came to chose a profession, she didn’t have to think twice, selling books it was. The Francophile that she had turned into, her first choice was to open a French bookshop in Poland. Fate led her to Berlin instead. In no time ‘La Maison du Livre’ became a haven for intellectuals and artists alike, it was frequented by diplomats and celebrities.

She started facing difficulties in 1935 as Jews were becoming targets of suspicion. Importing books became a challenge with innumerable bureaucratic hurdles to be faced. Confiscation of newspapers and books of blacklisted authors became the order of the day. Then came the forms that asked details of her race, generations of her family. Her narration here was eerily familiar to what we see and hear in India these days.

“Are you Frau So-and-So? Father’s name? Mother’s name? Race? Age? Date and place of birth? Identity papers! You are accused of having left at Easter for an unknown destination and of crossing the border illegally.”

Then came Kristallnach – the wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms that took place on November 9 and 10, 1938.

“The city burned like Nero’s Rome that day, engulfed in an atmosphere of destruction.
Goods and wares which had been hurled out of windows were carried off by the mob. Whoever tried to defend himself or to save his property was manhandled and abused.
This time, there were bloody, murderous encounters. Everything took place under the very noses of an uninterested police force.
Right next door to these scenes of looting, officers were directing traffic.”

Her bookshop was spared, but the time had come to move on, or literally flee to Paris. And from there starts her saga in search of refuge. From Paris to Avignon to Vichy, Clermont-Ferrand, Nice and Annecy, she is helped by a series of French people most of whom are ashamed of the happenings in their country and what their country men are forced to do. In the end, she literally throws herself over a fence of barbed wire into Switzerland.

It’s a tale of persecution, of unimaginable horror as we all know by now. But Frenkel’s story focuses mostly on the goodness of the people who helped her in spite of the grave risks they themselves would have faced. She gets arrested, is thrown into prison, faces some dark characters, however it’s light that pervades her narrative. Particularly moving for me was how she finds joy in nature even as she is waiting for one of the two – capture or escape, chances of capture being higher.

“A water fountain murmuring in the middle of a square. Nearby, a little bridge from ancient times, looking toylike with its delicate balustrade.
A footbridge seemingly lifted straight out of a theater set; the lively rushing stream and pervasive smell of watery plant life the only things to remind you that it was real. On the street corner, an old church surrounded by dilapidated buildings.”

‘The Rediscovered Memoir of One Woman’s Harrowing Escape From the Nazis’ says the red stamp on the cover of the book. The book was originally published in 1945, and went largely unnoticed I guess. It was then apparently rediscovered in a jumble sale in Nice and republished in 2015. Originally written in French, the English translation is by Stephanie Smee.

All through the book I couldn’t help but think of Anne Frank. In spite of all they had to go through, it is hope, light and the goodness of people that shines through. Frank broke free through her words, Frenkel, physically too. One is left thinking why we as a race never learn from what happened to others. How patterns keep repeating over the years, how a false sense of superiority or having been persecuted paves the way to persecuting another race, some other religion. Hope prevails, in spite of all the blood and gore.

These words sent a chill down the spine, though. Eerily familiar.

“Oh, the memory of the emergence of a leader with the face of an automaton, a face so deeply marked by hate and pride, dead to all feelings of love, friendship, goodness, or pity …
And clustered around this leader with his hysterical voice, a captive crowd capable of any violence, any murderous act!”

 

 

‘Warlight’ by Michael Ondaatje

67261DB1-6E99-43C2-BEBF-353179304863

It is 1945. 14 year old Nathaniel and his 16 year old sister Rachel find themselves abandoned by their parents. As it is both of them were secretive about their war time work. The kids are flabbergasted by yet anoththey were told of the departure, no further details were given. The confusion turns into a sense of betrayal when they find their mother’s luggage that should have been with her, in their basement. They are left in the care of a character they call ‘The Moth’ , a strange man who had been inhabiting the upper floor of their house.

The first half of the story weaves itself around the strange characters that float in and out of their home, The Moth’s friends. The Darter, Olive, the ethnologist, the Russian woman that was Darter’s girlfriend and so on. Each of them include one or the other of the kids in their strange occupations and influence them in their growing up years one way or the other. Meanwhile, Nathaniel starts working in the kitchen of a restaurant where he strikes up a friendship with a girl called Agnes. They meet up at night in houses put up for sale, letting themselves in with keys borrowed from Agnes’s real estate agent brother. The life that has now become normal comes to an abrupt halt with an almost catastrophic event that turns fatal to one of the characters.

The second half finds us years later with Nathaniel trying to piece together the years of his uncertainty as well his mother’s life, from her childhood, youth and marriage, the war years and post that and her professional and personal relationship with the suave and enigmatic Felon Marsh. Each earlier character’s role is revealed slowly. The story ends with an extremely unexpected twist that reminds us of Julian Barnes’s ‘The Sense of an Ending’.

That Michael Ondaatje is a writer unparalleled is a given fact. He doesn’t let the reader down, yet again. Lives entwine each other, threads that were unraveled once get caught up with each other again and there is vengeance, but with a cause. Every act has a reason for the actors, but do they know the consequences fully? Once they come to know of it, are they penitent or do they accept it and go on with their lives? The ongoing thread seem to be how your acts are never left dangling in the air, that there are always after effects.

The language as expected is exquisite. It caresses you as you feel for each of the characters. And the final twist is something you would never imagine.

If you love well etched characters, a story that flows gently like a calm river (who said war stories have to be violent?) and an ending that makes you gasp at first and then accept it and go on without upsetting the applecart as Nathaniel did, do not miss it.

‘The Gift of Rain’ by Tan Twan Eng

rainThese days it is a rare miracle to get the time, temperament and the right kind of book to read for hours at a stretch and finish it in one go. As you get to explore more and more authors and genres, you realize, with some sadness, that it is getting increasingly difficult to satisfy the growing soul that is you. So you flit from one book to another, trying to find that magic that once was there in every story that you read. You long for that time when each author was fairy god mother  or father as the case maybe, with a bottom less hat from which tale after enchanted tale was pulled out.

Then, out of the blue, like a long lost rainbow, you meet authors like Tan Twan Eng, who ensnare you with the lyrical quality of their writing, sears you to the core with the stories they have to tell and leaves you with an ache that saddens you and a pain that turns into the joy of something essentially good. My first meeting with him was more than an year ago and quite accidental. The cover caught my eye and the blurb gave a go ahead to the heart (yes, some books have to be read with your heart and soul). It took me a while to come out of ‘The Garden of  Evening Mists’, in fact, each time I read a mention of it, a cool and gentle breeze descends on my soul.

‘The Gift of Rain’ is Tan’s debut novel and it has been calling out to me for quite some time. The fear of being disappointed was pulling me back, till a few Saturdays ago I decided to get drenched. The opening lines were more than enough to hook me

“I was born with the gift of rain, an ancient soothsayer in an even more ancient temple once told me.”

The Penang Historical Society was planning to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Second World War as Philip Hutton receives a visitor who would take him back to his youth and force him to open some wounds that he had kept hidden, somewhere deep inside, never opening it out to anyone, leaving it to fester and killing him slowly and painfully.

Born of a British father and a Chinese mother, young Philip feels he belongs neither here nor there. He feels alien to his elder, all British siblings – two brothers and a sister. His mother had passed away when he was young, and the only contact he has with the mother’s side of family is an aunt. At sixteen, he finds himself alone in their large bungalow by the sea, his father and siblings in England on their annual sojourn. And to his life appears Endo san,  a Japanese aikijutsu master. As the cliche goes, Philip’s life will never be the same again.

There is an unspoken closeness between the master and his student right from the beginning, as if they have known each other for more than a lifetime. As the bond grows stronger each day, it is also evident to the reader that there is more to Endo san than what meets the eye. It is not that Philip is not aware of this as well, but he chooses to ignore the obvious as many a young one is wont to. As Japan prepares for war overtly in other places and covertly in Malaya, the natives and British continue to go about their lives as though they are invincible. Philip is innocently pulled into the quagmire and inadvertently paves the way for setting the base for a Japanese invasion.

At the same time, there is a transformation that is happening silently within Philip. He comes to terms with his parentage, his families on both sides, and finally he is at peace with who he is. The tragedy begins at this point, unfortunately. Soon as he finds his space, the very root of his love and convictions are tested, to a limit that seems almost beyond endurance.

If Part One of the story is about Philip’s coming of age and of being a family, the real soul of the story is in Part Two. The war is in earnest, Philip is seen as an enemy by many and as a closest ally by others. The fact that he is working for the Japanese is enough for many to condemn him. Even the ones that he helps, seem to question his motives. With almost all whom he loved turning against him, his biggest pain is the knowledge of betrayal by his trusted master and love, Endo san.

The eternal tug of war between duty and love, fate and choice, family and friends is brought out beautifully in the second part. It takes more than a strong will to stand firm when everything that you believed in and everyone whom you loved turns against you. And then comes the feeling that would shatter even the strongest ones,

“And I realized then that there was an emotion worse even than the sharpest fear; it was the dull feeling of hopelessness, the inability to do anything.”

It takes Philip almost half a century to come to terms with the war and his part in it. There is a multitude of nuances that run beneath the story and which holds it together, threads that are as fine as silk and unbreakable at the same time. The relationship between the master and student, the soft undercurrents of sexuality, the unequivocal love between an English man and a Chinese woman, the common love for someone who is no more that brings together conflicting cultures and transcends pride and finally, the acceptance,

“Accept that there are things in this world we can never explain and life will be understandable. That is the irony of life. It is also the beauty of it.”

In short, a tale so well told that after ages, all I did on a Saturday was just read. Everything else was incidental.

Verdict – I was ready to judge it  a little above a  customary okay, till Part Two happened. Read it if you love stories that question your ideals, makes you think about coincidences, choices, duty, love and a little bit about what this life is all about.

4.5/5

 

‘The Buddha in the Attic’ by Julie Otsuka

buddha The story of a whole generation in less than 130 pages, difficult to believe, isn’t it?  Yet, this book , all of eight chapters, covers the life saga of a group of Japanese mail order or picture brides as they were called.  A group of young and some not so young women on a ship that is taking them to a land of promises and men they have seen only in pictures.  They are confused, anxious, scared and most of all hopeful of escape from a life that would otherwise have been condemned to penury and boredom.

The narration is what catches you by the throat. There is no single protagonist, the whole story is told in first person plural, the collective and all encompassing ‘We’. Their life is divided into and completely told in about eight chapters, starting with their experiences in the ship, the first night with the husbands who are nowhere near to the picture that they had painted in their hearts, the whites around, their children, the masters and the mistresses and so on. Their story starts to end with the second world war, when anything even remotely Japanese is seen with suspicion and hatred and finally how even the smallest trace of a whole race fades into oblivion.

The strong punch that Julie Otsuka has packed into a small wine glass is so potent, you are left with a strong ache for almost each of the hundreds of characters that she tells us about. You can read the life story of a person in a single sentence,..

“One swore she would one day marry a preacher so she wouldn’t have to pick berries on Sundays. One wanted to save enough money to buy his own farm. …One wanted to plant a vineyard….One could not wait until the day she got off the ranch. One wanted to go to college even though no one she knew had ever left the town. ..One wanted something more but could not say exactly what it was. …One wanted her own room, with a lock on the door…One wanted to become an artist and live in a garret in Paris….One wanted to become a doctor…. One wanted to become a star. And even though we saw darkness coming we said nothing and let them dream on.”

Verdict : A poignant life tale, read it for the interesting narrative style and the sad, shocking story that it tells us.

4/5

‘The Chosen’ by Chaim Potok

chosen
I chanced upon this gem of a tale in the course of a search for an age appropriate book for my 11 year old son. Set in the background of the United States during the second World War, era, the story starts with a baseball game between two rival Jewish schools. The match predictably ends in an injury that portends the beginning of a life long friendship between two boys – Reuven and Danny.

Danny and his father has a very strange relationship that Reuven finds to be very cold and strange. Having been brought up by a father who is very open in his interactions and is liberal in his outlook, he just cannot fathom why things are as it is with his friend. The growing friendship between the two boys is very obvious in the narration, what is hidden and what is more relevant is the strong influence of the fathers on each other. Reb Saunders, Danny’s father do not approve of Reuven’s father’s ideologies, but he acknowledges and even encourages the friendship. It is as if each father nudges their offspring towards the other, its a subtle message of love that they have for their sons, their deep longing to see the boys finding happiness in their lives.

Reb Saunders comes across as an extremely orthodox and rigid person, and this is in stark contrast to David Malter who considers his son as an equal and treats him so. The story covers a period of about six years and takes us through the coming of age of the two boys. It tells us how religious bigot-ism and changing political situations can affect even the closest of relationships and how true friendship can stand the test of time and trials. More importantly, it portrays the deep love a father has for his son, the price that he is willing to pay is that very relationship that he treasures the most.

What I loved the most is the easy connect between Reuven and his father and how he guides the confused youngsters towards their true destinies.

Verdict : A must read for young boys and their fathers , as well for mothers and daughters 🙂