There was a time when I would, while not eagerly, but with great interest and anticipation pick up a book of Holocaust literature. I like stories (or memoirs and biographies) about survivors. Stories that show humans at their best in the worst circumstances. Stories that show just how resilient people can be in the face of extreme hardship and even in cruel or demeaning (which so often seems to be the case when writing about the Holocaust) situations. I wonder if thinking or reading about the world as it was during WWII (the Holocaust in particular) is easier when you have youth on your side? The older I get the harder it seems to face these stories for some reason. So it was with both anticipation and a little wariness that I picked up Maria Àngels Anglada's The Violin of Auschwitz (El violí d'Auschwitz).
Anglada was a Catalan author who passed away in 1999. She was an important and well known figure in Catalan literature and won a number of awards for her work. The Violin of Auschwitz was originally published in 1994 but not translated into English until 2010. It's a work of fiction (I had been wondering if she had based her story on true events), but it's not hard imagining that just such a story could have taken place during the dark days of the war. It's quite a slim novel, really more of a novella, which deals with exactly the sort of subject I would normally find myself seeking out--the idea of human resiliency. It's a story of how one man doesn't allow himself to lose his dignity in the presence of those who would treat him as less than human.
The story begins and ends in the present day. It opens in Krakow, Poland where a musician notices a dignified older woman playing a violin with such perfection and passion that the sound haunts him by its beauty. Regina tells him the violin was made by her uncle, a luthier, to the measurements of a Stradivarius. It's her most prize possession. It's the story of how the violin came into being that makes up the bulk of the story.
How can such a beautiful object, one that creates such an penetrating sound, have been crafted in the ugliness of a concentration camp? As that is where Daniel, Regina's uncle, was forced to make the violin. To be given the job of constructing a violin, especially when that had been your profession, sounds like it would not be a hardship under more normal circumstances. Daniel's job in the camp is to work as a carpenter, and when he successfully fixes a violin for the music-loving commandant, he's set the task of creating an instrument as perfect as a Stradivarius for his collection. But Daniel isn't told that his life hangs in the balance as the commandant and the camp doctor have made a wager on whether Daniel will finish the violin in a set time--unknown to him. The winner gets a case of fine Burgundy wine. It would seem that is the price of one life.
When another prisoner in the camp, a musician who will play the instrument for the camp's officials, tells Daniel of the wager, there are nightmarish moments for Daniel as he knows the cruelty the camp doctor is capable of. But working with the wood, planing it and measuring it and turning it into the perfect instrument is also calming for him. It reminds him of his life before. So the beauty of music, of the possibility of music plays out against the ugliness of life in the camp--the beatings and starvation and hours long roll calls. Creating such a magnificent instrument, his instrument, as Daniel thinks of it, gives him the dignity that is taken away from living in the camp.
It's a curious juxtaposition of events. What happened to Daniel, whose violin survives the war, is revealed when the story wraps back around to the present day. The premise of the story is quite powerful, and the writing, while simple and straightforward, is often elegant. Strangely, however, I felt always at a distance from Daniel. Maybe it's a good thing in a story like this to feel outside and only looking in, but it also made me feel quite tepid about the events. All the right elements were there, but they felt very slight somehow. I can't decide whether the length of the story works in its favor or against it. But I am happy to have read another Catalan author and would be curious to know what the impetus for Anglada was to choose this subject matter.