June 18, 2019

The Most Brilliant Holocaust Literature You've Never Read

“Like many Australian Jews of my generation, I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. My grandparents were survivors, the kind who fled to a faraway land where they wouldn’t have to speak of the horrors they had endured. I revered them, awed by the very fact of their survival, and did not dare ask questions. Instead, I sought some kind of understanding in the vast, overcrowded field of Holocaust literature. I began with the classics: the survivor memoirists and novelists around whom the canon has been built. From there, the pickings were endless. With every book I devoured, I recast my grandparents as the central characters, sending them back to their unspeakable, private hells.

Deeper into the labyrinth I ventured, hundreds upon hundreds of books, mostly novels. The more I read, the more I began to notice a disappointing sameness to many of them. In the 75 years since the Holocaust, much of its literature has come to fit into neat narrative templates. At best, we see variations on a theme, triumph over unimaginable adversity, usually riffing on recurring tropes that border on cliché. At worst, we get schmaltzy dreck that minimizes, sanitizes, or otherwise distorts what happened. Casual readers could be forgiven for dipping into a couple and moving on, convinced they’d read what they need to about the subject. But every now and then there will be those small few exceptions, novels so astoundingly original, so daring, that they will demand the attention of even the most seasoned, fatigued readers. Here are seven Holocaust novels that smash the template.

In occupied Prague, Mr. Theodore Mundstock sets up a mock concentration camp in his apartment to acclimatize to his fate. Accompanied only by his shadow (both Greek chorus and devil’s advocate) and some weird bird-like creature, he lays out a wooden board, practices stockpiling scraps of food and simulates assaults by over-zealous camp guards. He also acts as self-appointed bringer-of-hope to those around him, promising his neighbors that they need not fear deportation as the war will end before ‘the Spring”. It is as sad as it is calculated. Is he just mad or do these baseless promises help the others survive? Mr. Theodore Mundstock is one of the best, albeit strangest, novels I have read. With generous scoops of both comedy and tragedy, it confronts very difficult issues of morality and honesty in times of crisis, all the while questioning what amounts to rational action when the entire framework of rationality has collapsed.”

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