Chasing the King of Hearts (2013)

Polish title: Król kier znów na wylocie (2006)
By: Hanna Krall
Translated by: Philip Boehm
Published by: Peirene Press
Originally published by: Świat Książki

The internationally acclaimed Polish bestseller about the Holocaust, now for the first time in English. A remarkable true story of love and survival. The Warsaw Ghetto 1942: When Izolda’s husband, Shayek, is imprisoned, she sets out to release him. She changes her name, her hair, her religion. Eventually she is captured and deported to Auschwitz. But even there, she trusts that her love will save them both. — Why Peirene chose to publish this book: ‘This is a beautiful love story but also an incredible account of one woman’s quest to be heard. Told with astounding simplicity, the book recreates the Holocaust not as an historical event but as a terrifying, shared, experience. I am amazed – and honoured – that it was left to Peirene to publish this book for the first time in English.’ Meike Ziervogel, Publisher

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Zielony Balonik book club notes:

In Polish the title is more to do with the king of hearts being always on the move, or on the lam. Some people thought he was someone who always needed to moving, and that his leaving Izolda at the end was inevitable; I disagreed, saying that his moves during the war were decided for him, and that after the war he stayed long enough with Izolda to produce and raise a family. He remains mysterious; we’re given little insight into his motivations. Jenny commented on the name Izolda, saying her love was bound to be doomed. Their post-war expulsion from Poland, when they are recognised as Jews, would have been in 1968, part of the ‘Zionist purges’; as the son of an industrialist, he would also have been considered a ‘class enemy’. Zenon compared Izolda to Spiegelmann in The Pianist, a passive character who survives the war; she however is active, and makes things happen. Both live in a random chaotic world, and both survive thanks more to luck or accident than judgement.

The author does not judge her characters’ behaviour; they do what they do in the circumstances, and then the next scene happens. So the Germans – even the Gestapo officer who tortures her – are not evil, not over on one side as the enemies, while we root for the others. War is greater than individuals, all of whom are trying to find a place within it where they can survive, whether as individuals or as part of a group or community or organisation.

We talked about the ‘speed’ of the narrative, and the short chapters; apparently Krall’s reportage is similar. We disagreed as to its effectiveness: some thought it trivialised events, but others thought it told the story well, and reflected the characters lack of introspection, as well as avoiding the trap of sentimentality which focus on individual suffering can bring.

Some were surprised at the occasional normality that intrudes, e.g. that there was a train running from Warsaw to Vienna (who, I wonder, were its typical passengers?) We talked about Polish children going to primary (but not secondary) school; Zenon mentioned that there were more newspapers (underground) during the occupation than before or after the war, and that Poland was unique among the occupied countries in having a resistance linked to the government-in-exile, and thus a command-and-control hierarchy; large sums of money were channelled to the resistance, which in Warsaw had a larger budget at its disposal than did the German governor. Travel within the Reich and German-occupied Europe was easier in the USSR before, during and after the war, when an internal passport was required. The randomness of Nazi violence was treated like a natural phenomenon when you go out, you might be struck by lightning, or a falling tree, or an out-of-control car, or you might run into the wrong Nazi and happen to be shot.


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