Schindler’s Ark
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Thomas Keneally’s novel Schindler’s Ark was published in 1982. A decade later, when filming it as Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg rebuilt parts of the Kraków-Płaszów Camp, site of many of the story’s actual events. He did so using original plans and in a location (Liban Quarry where prisoners were worked to death or executed) within the camp perimeter. This film-set was subsequently incorporated into a memorial: one could visit the re-creation as if seeing the real thing. Similarly, parts of Auschwitz, long since destroyed or decayed, have been re-created to serve the uses of pious memory. This calls to mind the paradox known as ‘The Ship of Theseus’. Plutarch’s Life of the Greek hero describes how the ship in which he returned to Athens after his triumph over the Minotaur is preserved long after his death:

As the ship’s original timbers decayed, they were removed and replaced by ones that were new and sound. This happened so often that, over time, the ship became a touchstone for philosophers. Whenever they discussed the topic of growth, they would mention Theseus’s ship: some held it had remained the same, while others argued it had changed.

Theseus’s Paradox concentrates on the physical – oars and planking – but may also have a bearing on less tangible matters: on memory, art and fiction. What happens when fiction does the work of commemoration, re-telling at one remove a part of history which is both well-documented and uniquely horrific? The philosophical trim of the Ship of Theseus has lasted centuries. How seaworthy is Schindler’s Ark?

I will have read the novel – perhaps when it won the Booker Prize – but all I remembered of it 30 years later was how its subject came to Keneally (and this may well be the memory of a magazine article on, or by, the novelist). It begins with an Author’s Note, the first two sentences of which have the peremptory ring of the story-teller: ‘In 1980 I visited a luggage store in Beverly Hills and asked about the prices of briefcases. The store belonged to Leopold Pfefferberg, a Schindler survivor.’ (Oskar Schindler, a Sudetenland industrialist, used his factories as a cover for saving hundreds of Jews from the Nazis.) Pfefferberg’s buttonholing of Keneally leads the novelist across the world, interviewing other Schindler survivors and visiting Kraków and Auschwitz. The story proper begins with a Prologue (‘Autumn 1943’) where the crispness of the Author’s Note gives way to the novelist at the crank-handle:

In Poland’s deepest autumn, a tall young man in an expensive overcoat, double-breasted dinner jacket beneath it and – in the lapel of the dinner jacket – a large ornamental gold-on-black enamel swastika, emerged from a fashionable apartment block… and saw his chauffeur waiting with fuming breath by the open door of an enormous and, even in this blackened world, lustrous Adler limousine.

‘Watch the pavement, Herr Schindler,’ said the chauffeur. ‘It’s icy like a widow’s heart.’

We do not hear from the chauffeur again: no great loss.

There are two elements to the Schindler story: his miraculous saving of thousands of Jews and his reasons for doing so. The first is a matter of historical record; the second is a mystery. Schindler’s Ark, for the most part, works with the first element: it is a clear and cogent account of what happened. It gives us the externals. As regards the second – fiction’s primum mobile of seeing, thinking and feeling as someone else – it draws a blank. ‘It is not immediately easy to find in Oskar’s family history the origin of his impulse towards rescue.’ ‘For one of the most common sentiments of Schindler Jews is still, “I don’t know why he did it.”’ Keneally’s acceptance of Schindler as an enigma deprives the novel of interior life. The notorious verdict on the camps, made by a guard and recorded by Primo Levi – Hier ist kein warum – though awful in its seeming finality, was overturned by Levi’s powers of description, analysis and empathy. Keneally gives us plenty of how, but no why.

We are told, twenty or so times, of Schindler drinking cognac (or, as a proprietary variation, Martell). This is would-be characterisation: information that remains information. Like the swastika badge in Schindler’s lapel, and the suit itself (both referred to several times), bottle and glass are props. Yet even novels that restrict themselves to the depiction of external reality can thrive on an external reality of their own: style. This novel does not. As an example of writing as work, Schindler’s Ark is impressive: a mere two years passed between the encounter with Pfefferberg and the novel’s publication. As an example of writing, it is lacklustre. Kraców is described as ‘a sweet city’, ‘the sweet city of Cracow’, ‘the sweet little nougat of a city’. The ‘deepest autumn’ of the Prologue soon becomes ‘its sweetest autumn’. Pfefferberg’s wife ‘had lived a sweet childhood’. (We are spared a sweet cognac.) Detailing a general doom, the book lacks the individuality of subjective life: it is not, in Gertrude’s words to Hamlet, ‘particular to thee’. An attempt to particularise Pfefferberg describes him as being ‘built like a wedge.’ So, a thin end and a thick end: but arranged how? Is he pin-headed and broad-beamed; barrel-chested and pigeon-toed; or (more interestingly) do belly or bum come to a point?

As if inhibited by the need to honour the suffering of those whose story he is telling, Keneally’s style is functional and pedestrian. It feels hampered by a sense of duty. In his Author’s Note, Keneally says that he uses ‘the texture and devices of a novel to tell a true story… I have attempted to avoid all fiction, though, since fiction would debase the record’. Though scrupulous, this approach results in the exo-skeleton of a novel. Just as Schindler is the sum of his actions, so too is his main protagonist, the Camp’s Commandant, Amron Goeth. (Nothing is made of his surname being a vowel short of that of Germany’s greatest writer.) The mystery of why Schindler acts as he does is thus complemented by another: why does Goeth? Keneally floats the notion of the two men mirroring each other (both heavy drinkers; both carnal), but the press of events cuts off any chance of psychological subtlety or depth.

Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet also has a protagonist seen (in retrospect) in wartime Kraków. The difference in the writing, though, is marked. Keneally gives us a brief account of Schindler’s post-war life, including a spell in Argentina. ‘The decade in which Oskar farmed nutria, however, was the period in which it was demonstrated that breeding, as distinct from trapping, did not produce pelts of adequate quality. Many other nutria enterprises failed in that time, and in 1957 the Schindlers’ farm went bankrupt.’ Sammler, on a visit to Israel, comes across ‘a gaucho… mixing feed for small creatures racing about him in a chicken-wire enclosure. Water from a hose ran clear and pleasant in the sun over the yellow meal or mash and stained it orange. The little animals though fat were lithe; they were heavy, their coats shone, opulent and dense. These were nutrias. Their fur made hats worn in cold climates. Coats for ladies.’ Where Keneally writes like an accountant, Bellow short-circuits his narrative with jolts of life: ‘The little animals though fat were lithe…’ Keneally also uses a great deal of reported conversation; there are few, if any, moments of vivid actual speech. Sammler and the nutria breeder have no language in common, but talk anyway, buoyed by Sammler’s wish to know everything: does the breeder kill the animals himself; does he grow fond of them?

The gaucho denied it all. He shook his handsome head. He said that nutrias were very stupid.

Son muy tontos.’

Arriverderci,’ said Sammler.

Adios. Shalom.’

This sort of any-angled life is absent from Schindler’s Ark.

The novel is dedicated ‘To the memory of Oskar Schindler, and to Leopold Pfefferberg who by zeal and persistence caused this book to be written.’ The Author’s Note says that, besides Pfefferberg, two other Schindler survivors ‘contributed to the accuracy of the narrative, but also read the early drafts of the book and suggested corrections.’ Prefatory maps of Kraków and the Concentration Camp reinforce the claim to authenticity. However, much like the facsimile of Keneally’s signature at the end of his Note, the reader is left with a reproduction rather than a re-creation. A novel, however informed by the memories and testimony of others, must walk on its own legs. (Those nutrias: fat and lithe.) Autonomy cannot be willed. Martin Amis, in The Zone of Interest, has two Nazis address the reader in what seems to be an anglicised German. An Afterword suggests Amis feels he has captured ‘the tics and rhythms of German speech’. Yet the men’s references are so Anglocentric (Biggles, a battlefield ‘the size of Wales’, Auden and Binyon) and the tone so laddish as to suggest an English idiolect (Mamish, perhaps). The insertion of ‘nicht?’ at the end of sentences becomes as routine as Schindler’s cognacs.

In the musical wars of Nineteenth Century Germany, there was a Brahms camp and a Bruckner camp. A cheerleader for the latter said he would gladly exchange all of Brahms’s symphonies for one cymbal-clash of Bruckner’s. To be proscriptive (if not dictatorial), the odds of a ‘Holocaust novel’ being worth re-reading are severely reduced if (a) the novelist’s imagination is not free to go where it will, and (b) he or she wasn’t there. Thus, for me, any and all of the Jerry-come-lately novels about Nazi Germany are not worth Badenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld. Or even one chapter, ‘Vanadium’, of Primo Levi’s Periodic Table. Or even one paragraph of that; one question; one final word. (Levi’s post-war work in a paint factory leads to a correspondence with a German chemist whose misspelling of ‘naphthenate’ as ‘naptenate’ reminds Levi of the overseer of his work in an Auschwitz laboratory. Could this be the same man?)

The return of that ‘pt’ had thrown me into a state of violent agitation… The encounter I looked forward to with so much intensity as to dream of it (in German) at night, was an encounter with one of them down there, who had disposed of us, who had not looked into our eyes, as though we didn’t have eyes. Not to take my revenge: I am not the Count of Montecristo. Only to establish the right proportions, and to say, ‘Well?’


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