JOE’S WAR by Annette Kobak


My Father Decoded
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A daughter explores her Czechoslovakian father’s traumatic experiences before, during, and after WWII—and along the way retells much of the 20th-century history of Poland.

London-based writer Kobak (Isabelle: The Life of Isabelle Eberhardt, 1989) wanted, she says, “to try to make some sense of my father’s silences.” She wondered why her father didn’t talk much—and why he slept with a hammer under his pillow. (Now in his 80s, he lives in Australia.) The author sketches the history of her mother and father, who met while playing Ping-Pong during the war in London, where he had fled to as the Nazis swept across continental Europe. He served for a time in Polish units that fought for the Allies. The author confesses to some personal problems (a divorce), and in 1989 she begins a long series of taped interviews with her father, hoping that by reconstructing his story she will add some stability to her own. For about one-third of her account, she moves back and forth from her father’s narration (she quotes him at length and does not supply the definite articles his speech lacks) to her own stories about following quite literally in his footsteps. In the strongest, most harrowing portion, Kobak tells how in 2001 she and a friend traveled by train and by foot from Lviv (Ukraine) to Baligrod (in the Carpathian Mountains), the same journey her father had taken in far more dangerous circumstances in 1939. Kobak and her companion (neither spoke any of the relevant languages) trekked across frightening, devastated terrain, fearing wildlife, humans, and the unknown. But then she made an unfortunate decision: to abandon the dual-memoir and write a lengthy, fairly traditional history, complete with long block quotations from published authorities. Her appealing voice, for a time, disappears. Until she and her father return to center stage near the end, her tale sags with unnecessary weight.

What could have been a first-rate shorter work is instead a second-rate longer one. (20 b&w photos; 2 maps, not seen)

Pub Date: March 16th, 2004
ISBN: 0-375-41184-4
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 2004