Frankfurt-born but Paris-dwelling Lustiger debuts with a pastiche-like novel of 35 short pieces that look into the Holocaust-era lives both of Germans and of Jews. The result has an unusual, almost stuttering quality, like an antique movie with a present-day voice, while many of the moments are fiercely gripping.
In 1924, when the Berlin College of Arts and Crafts was relocated, its building was rented by one Richard Kahn, a man who felt impelled, in a number of notebooks, to narrate the building’s illustrious history. We learn this within the first few pages of Lustiger’s story (Kahn’s notebooks, we’re told, “dry up completely in April 1933”), where we learn also that Kahn’s revered building, shortly afterward, became Gestapo headquarters. And Kahn himself? Almost 300 pages later, nothing said about his being the man we met long before, he and his family arrive at the horror of Auschwitz, where their fates are described with a grisly understatement that shows Lustiger at her most powerful: disgusted, angry, icy. The lives of Germans—a woman sews clothing from scraps; a typist is stalked by a co-worker; a party member’s wife is divorced for buying a compact from a Jewish store—are interspersed quietly and terribly with those of Jews: a retarded girl is ripped away from her family; a department store owner sends his family abroad and contemplates suicide; roundups begin. Dreadful if oft-done descriptions follow: families shot at the edges of pits; camp women serving the sexual pleasure of Germans; people dying in the gas chambers. It may be Lustiger’s intent, in this depersonalized world gone mad, that the reader can’t quite keep threads straight and can only rarely remember recurring characters. The narrative effect, frustrating or not, is unrelenting.
An impassioned re-creation of the inexpressible horror of the Holocaust—and of the additional horror that comfortable lives went on while so many others ended unspeakably.