A broad generational sweep and a strong sense of the artist’s identification with his creations distinguishes this striking collection of the late (1983–96) short fiction of an essential European writer.
Herling (1919–2000) was a heroic participant in WWII, survivor of a Soviet labor camp (an experience recorded in his famed 1986 memoir, A World Apart), and champion and preserver of his native Poland’s postwar literary culture. His tales, previously collected in The Island (published by World in 1966) and Volcano and Miracle (1996), are painstakingly shaped allegorical expressions of struggle, alienation, and the human will to persevere and endure. Here, an involved narrator who reveals both his sources of information and his own literary strategies appears in most of these 15 stories, several of which concern the Holocaust and similar 20th-century atrocities. The title piece, for example, turns on the unexplained burial of a Nazi soldier in an Italian cemetery. The virtual sanctification of a Polish woman who bears the “child of [her] rape” by Serbian soldiers brings harshly ironic consequences in “Beata, Santa”; and the manner in which grief can “infect” a survivor is rigorously analyzed in the story of a pair of war-ravaged English archeologists (“A Hot Breath From the Desert”). Numerous allusions to classic literature, art, and music enrich the textures of stories that reach throughout history and myth, including meditations on the lifelong ordeals of an eminent surgeon obsessed with the Neapolitan legend of the “evil eye” (“Don Ildebrando”), a conflicted London hangman (“Notebook of William Moulding, Pensioner”), and the thief released by Pontius Pilate in place of the crucified Christ (“The Eyetooth of Barabbas”). Even more indicative of Herling’s versatility are the revelation of a moribund priest’s recognition of evil in his world and in himself (“The Exorcist’s Brief Confession”), and the unforgettable account of a deaf woman’s paradoxically liberating withdrawal from reality (“Ashes”).
Brilliant work. How did the Nobel Committee manage to overlook Herling?