Heather Morris (2021) three SISTERS.

I’m a reader. When I open a book magic happens. Or in Heather Morris’s case magic doesn’t happen. When God said to Moses, you cannot look—directly—at me, but when I pass you might see my glory. When I read a book if I don’t see God’s face, I’m not too disappointed. After all, even international and bestselling authors are only human. I’ll wait for the glory to pass.  And I don’t go very many places. The best writers transport you.

Where are we?

The three sisters, Cibi, Magda and Livi, sit in a tight circle in the small backyard of their home. The oleander bush their mother has tried so hard to coax back to life droops disconsolately in the corner of the small garden.

Livi the youngest, at three years old, leaps to her feet: sitting still is not in her nature.

‘Livi, please, will you sit down?’ Cibi tells her. At seven years old, she is the eldest of the siblings, and it is her responsibility to chastise them when they misbehave. ‘You know, Father wants to talk to us.’

‘No,’ three year-old Livi pronounces and proceeds to skip around the seated figures, giving a pat on the head as she passes, Magda, the middle sister, and five years old…

This is the prologue to three SISTERS. The reader knows who they are. They’ve been named. And the reader has been told twice Livi is three-years-old.

I ask again. Where are we? What are we?

‘Just keep walking. Livi. Stay in Line,’ Cibi murmurs to her sister.

Once they are through the gates, the girls are led down a tree-lined street, the first flush of sapling leaves waving in the cool breeze. Heat emanates from the harsh overhead lighting and Cibi is ironically reminded of a warm summer evening. They pass a grey concrete building, meeting the blank stares of young men and women who gaze back at them, expressionless, from the window.’

The first paragraph of the book has a tag attached, so the reader doesn’t confuse it with somewhere else, somewhere interesting: Vranov and Topl’ou, Slovakia.

The second tag tells the reader, what year it is, because it could be anytime, but it is June 1929.    

The second paragraph transcribed, Chapter 7, Auschwitz, April 1942.

The narrator is Cibi, as she takes a stroll through the gates of Auschwitz, the gates of hell. She tries for irony, but finds only repetition, ‘blank stares,’ and ‘expressionless’ faces.

I do not see God passing. Nor do I see fallen humanity. Take out all the tags and I guess we could be in California, sunning ourselves on the beach, before nipping off to the local supermarket, which happens to be in a rundown part of town.

Heather Morris, international bestselling author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Her other works include Cilia’s Journey, which I’m glad to say is a journey I’ve made in abbreviated form, and Sources of Hope, which I have read in fuller form, is a writer who bumps along on the page dragging cliches behind her. But she must have something. I’m not quite sure what. I’ll not be reading any of her work again. You might think differently. Feel differently. Read on.  

Heather Morris (2020) Stories of Hope: Finding Inspiration in Everyday Lives

Heather Morris’s debut novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, sold around six million copies. I think I even had two copies floating about in my house at one time. I’ve still got one. The stories in the title. Lale Sokolov (he changed his surname, years earlier to make it sound less Jewish) was transported to Auschwitz from Bratislava with his family. His sister Goldie survived. He did too. His job as a tattooist, inking all those consecutive numbers on the wrists of inmates, kept him alive. His concentration-camp number was just over the 30 000 mark. Anybody with such a low number that survived had to win life’s lottery every day. Morris, working for the social work department in a large public hospital in Melbourne, was introduced to Lale Sokolov as a writer. He didn’t want the writer to be Jewish, for some reason I never quite got. He died 31st October 2006, three days after his ninetieth birthday.

 She was lucky. Few debut authors ever go from obscurity to international acclaim, with their work translated into Hebrew, and get to pick up a copy on their novel in a bookstore in Israel in its original English. I’d say that odds of that happen mirror the number of books sold about 6 000 000/1.  This is the book about the book, how she did it—and how it made her a better person. And it can make you one too.

I didn’t think her writing was great. I don’t think I finished either of my two copies of her best-seller. But I know it had a happy ending.  She admits that bad reviews hurt. I know that too, but she’s lucky here again, because nobody ever reads what I write. When I’ve written it, I rarely look back either.

Jealousy? Yes, like Yosser Hughes, in the Boys from the Blackstuff, I’m looking over her shoulder saying, ‘I can do that.’ (Most of you won’t know who that is.)

Instead of going back to my copy of the book, I can flick forward to the end of Stories of Hope. ‘Livia’s Story’ is just over three pages, and is her next novel. When you send your novel away, the potential agent or publisher only reads a page or two. That’s enough. It’s often a matter of taste. You don’t need to eat a whole cow starting with its tail to tell it’s a burnt sausage.

‘A death march through the countryside of Poland during the winter of 1945. The German soldiers marching the prisoners start to flee, aware the advancing Red Army is very close. Thirteen young girls break away from the group, leaving the columns of struggling, dying young women behind.

As night falls, they hold hands and run…’

Morris described herself as a screenwriter before becoming a novelist and converting Lale’s story from FinalDraft to Microsoft Word. They’d already agreed Ryan Gosling would make the perfect leading man when the film came out. Lale saw something of himself in the Canadian actor. I see screenwriting jargon, not fiction in the text.

If somebody had sent me the above passage from the start of their novel, I’d have messaged, ‘good start, but let’s bring it to life’.  Alexander Starritt, We Germans, for example, dealing with much the same period, does just that. Have a look and get back to me.

If I look at other copies of books about writing books, I can pick up Drew Gummerson’s slim volume, You: From Pissed to Publication.  He doesn’t tell me to listen, or pay attention, and give me (or you) bullet points on how to do it. Perhaps he does, but I wasn’t listening or paying attention. These are the kind of books I can read while drinking tea, watching telly and picking my toenails, turning pages with my long nose. But it is a signed copy, you might say. 33/200. I translate that as 200 copies printed. I got inked copy 33. That’s £2000, split into publisher and author’s share.

Heather Morris sells her books in the tens of thousands a day. Although her dad was Scottish, one of sixteen of a family, who emigrated to New Zealand, we live in different worlds. I’m glad she got lucky. But the real world for you is Pissed to Publication—and usually not publication—small presses, trying to make a difference with unheard voices.  Read on.  

Son of Saul BBC 4, BBC iPlayer, directed by László Nemes and written by Clara Royer.

son of saul.jpg

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m00029kr/son-of-saul

This is a straightforward narrative. A Hungarian man finds the body of a young boy, he thinks is his son and he wants to give him a proper Jewish burial. To do so he needs to find a Rabbi willing to perform Mourner’s Kaddish.

Transpose that scene to an unnamed Nazi death camp, (Auschwitz), running at full capacity, murdering Jews and burning their bodies. Fling in the babble of languages – German, Hungarian, Yiddish, Russian, Polish, French, Greek, Slovak and Hebrew – and make your central character, Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig) a Jewish Sonderkommdo. There’s a red X on the back of his coat and his job, as is the job of all survivors is to live as long as possible. He’s an old hand at it. Burying the young boy endangers not only him, but everyone around him. Scroll back.

Redemption comes when a miracle happens. A shipment of Jews are herded into the shower-room.  We hear the banging and shrieking as those inside try to escape from Zyklon- B gas. Sonderkommandos wait until ‘the pieces’ are dispatched, until they can get to work cleaning up. Pieces, are, of course, bodies. Saul’s job was, literally, picking up the pieces. And one of the pieces he picks up is his son, who is still alive, but dies later.

Nothing was wasted in the death camps, teeth extracted for gold, hair and even skin used for lamps. Eighty-percent of those arriving were processed immediately and send to the gas chambers. For some trainloads it was one-hundred percent and the ovens couldn’t cope.  Clothes recycled and the hunt for jewellery, gold and currency went on. ‘Canada’ was a place in camp where much of this reprocessing happened.

Euphemisms abounded and the film gets much of it right. While they can show the cruelty that was an integral part of the Nazi genocide, what they cannot show is how a body disintegrates without food and how crowded the camps were. They cannot replicate the stench of burning bodies. What they do well is show how many camps were situated in areas of natural beauty. Prisoners are shown shovelling ash (from bodies) into the nearby lake.

Son of Saul depicts, and indeed educates us, around the existential issue of what it means to be a man or a woman, what it means to be human, while giving no set answer. What it cannot do is legislate for stupidity and the cultivation of ignorance. A poll taken before Holocaust Memorial day on Sunday found that said the one in twenty Britons, say the Holocaust never happened. And eight- percent say the scale of the Holocaust has been exaggerated.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/27/one-in-20-britons-does-not-believe-holocaust-happened

The surprising thing about that poll is it doesn’t surprise me. The only exaggeration is how stupid these people are. But with the moron’s moron in the White House and the growth of right-wing neo-Nazi parties across the world, even in Germany, I don’t know whether you should watch this film or weep or look at the poll and weep. I tend towards the latter.

 

Elie Wiesel (1972 [1985]) Night, translated from the French by Marion Wiesel.

We create connections where there are none, Elie Wiesel’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1978, was in the winter months and fell on the same day as my birthday. Night is a slim volume, able to be read in one sitting. But it is a holy book, and in these increasingly dark times, it asks the hard question of what happens when. I dreamed my elder brother stood by my bed and mouthed words of warning. Ghosts speak and what our replies will be will be determined by who we are and what we become. Too often we leave all humanity behind. Birkenau, Auschwitz, Buchenwald barbed wire and millions dead, Elie Wiesel has come back from the dead to tell us what he seen and the choices we make that make cowards of us all.

‘Oh God, Master of the Universe, give me strength never to do what Rabbi Eiahu’s son has done.’

But there are different voices, one’s that are contemporary and familiar in what they are saying. Listen to the advice of the older and wiser Kapo to the sixteen-year old Wiesel, nearing the end of his strength and his father, and so many others, starving, dying of dysentery.

‘Listen to me, kid. Don’t forget that you are in a concentration camp. In this place, it is every man for himself, and you cannot think of others. Not even your father. In this place there is no such thing as father, brother, friend. Each of us lives and dies alone.’

Pity is for those that can afford it. Wiesel warns the reader in the preface. And in this digital, interconnected, age resonate even more.  ‘Books no longer have the power they once did. Those who kept silent yesterday will remain silent tomorrow.’

‘I was afraid,’ as we all are and fear calls forth fear.

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget the smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the will to live.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God himself.

Never.

And yet, like any prophet, he has moments of vision, when a child with an angelic face is hanged in front of them, his body too light to break the fall to death and who is slowly strangled by his weight.

‘For God’s sake where is God?

And from within me I heard a voice answer:

‘Where He is? This is where – hanging from this gallows.’

Holocaust Memorial Day, BBC 2, 7pm

nazi

The BBC commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz, 70 years ago, the site of almost one million murdered, but also a symbol of  the six million other Jews killed and hundreds of thousands others killed in a genocidal purge of the pure Aryan-Nazi race that took place in a ring of hundreds of other camps.

As a Catholic the service itself was one I was familiar with. The solemn intonation, readings from extracts of Primo Levi, If This is a Man. Prince Charles bumbling on about the three lines scratched into a wall at Auschwitz: ‘I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining. I believe in love even when I don’t feel it. I believe in God even when he is silent.’ Then there was the music of Thereseinstadt sung by fresh-faced children of every creed an affirmation that even though the body may suffer and burn away the joy of creation of music and art will transcend self and for that moment shine.

I get all that. I understand the paradox of man being a flimsy thing, yet somehow indestructible. I understand that when the rule of law is subverted and twisted the oppressor and the oppressed can share the same body and it becomes literally every man for themselves. Then we had the  wisdom of David Cameron.

As a holocaust survivor kept repeating: ‘Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’

http://unbound.co.uk/books/lily-poole