Tag Archives: Markus Zusak

And Over Our Heads The Hollow Seas Closed Up……….


……..These are words from the canto of Ulysses from Dante’s Inferno and they were quoted in the most moving book I’ve ever read, ‘If This Is A Man’ by Primo Levi.

In the ‘Thought For The Day’ slot on the Today Programme on Radio 4 last week I heard someone describe their thoughts and feelings on visiting Auschwitz  concentration camp. A few days later I began to read the magnificent novel HHhH by Laurent Binet, which I reviewed here. The shadow of the concentration camps and the man-made hell on earth to which millions of Jews, and others, were subjected hangs over the novel, a kind of evil that felt like it sat by my shoulder throughout my read of that book – I just couldn’t shake the feeling even though I was immersed in the novel.

That feeling while reading ‘HHhH’, and the words from that “Thought For The Day”, have echoed in my head, and I’m reminded of how I’m drawn to fiction and non-fiction about the Second World War and about the Holocaust in particular. But of course, as well as acknowledging that it holds some moth-to-the-flame appeal to me as a topic for reading, I’ve also been thinking about why.

At the age of 18 I was fortunate enough to visit Auschwitz. This was in 1979, when Poland was still Communist and behind the Iron Curtain. Somehow a group of teachers and youth club leaders I knew persuaded the then Local Authority of Strathclyde Regional Council to lend us tents and a mini-bus to travel around behind the Iron Curtain. God knows what they were thinking of (!) but somehow they agreed to it. After months of preparation and interminable paperwork to secure visas, we spent about 6 weeks touring around East Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia. The trip was hugely influential for me in so many ways, but none more so than the day we visited Auschwitz near the Polish town of Oswiecim. I recall the entry through those gates, the words above me, watching a documentary of the Holocaust in a small cinema, listening to the commentary in French because there was no English version in those days and quickly realising the language of the commentary was irrelevant as these were images which needed no words, the flowers and candles freshly placed in remembrance against the Execution Wall and the huts converted to long glass cabinets and filled floor to ceiling with hair, and spectacles, and suitcases, and shoes. I can’t describe how it felt now anymore than I could then.

But what affected me more, and what has stayed with me more, was the camp at Birkenau. Auschwitz then had been converted into a monument and museum by the Polish Government whereas Birkenau had been left to lapse into ruin and decay and was all the more chilling and awful as a result. The grass was knee-high, the huts broken down, rotting, with little glass left where the windows had once been and the bunks on which so many had tried to sleep and survive were piled high and haphazard. Somehow this desolate, windswept, and barren place made much more of an impression on me and it has never left me.

When I returned from that trip, I tracked down a copy of Primo Levi’s “If This Is A Man”, the story of his year in Auschwitz and “The Truce” the equally moving story of his nine month struggle to survive after liberation and get back through a war-ravaged Europe to his home in Turin. Reading that book was the beginning of so many books I’ve subsequently read over the years about the Holocaust, those who perpetrated it, those who turned a blind eye to it, those who suffered it and those who survived it. It’s only as I take stock of what I’ve read over the years do I realise how much I’ve read on that subject.

As a teacher I was amazed at the clever, subtle way the Holocaust was handled for children in the books When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr and the magnificent I Am David by Ann Holm, both of which I read to pupils over the years. As a young man  I read the incredibly powerful book Schindler’s Ark, by Thomas Keneally, and watched in awe as it was transferred magnificently to the cinema years later as Schindler’s List.

In recent years I was impressed by The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, and I went on to watch the film of this with my daughter and it made me realise that it had brought much-needed awareness of the Holocaust to a whole new generation of children and young people, in the same way that I Am David had done in previous years.

I read Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathon Safran Foer and immediately followed it with The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which I preferred. My first introduction to the writing of Bernhard Schlink was The Reader. I thought it was such a good book and one that made a very powerful impression on me. I’ve now got the film of The Reader on my Sky + but it’s been there sometime and I’m avoiding watching it. I have a feeling I’m going to be disappointed in the film, despite the fact that I’ve read good reviews of it in several places.

But good as all these books, and several others, have been, none of them have had that profound effect on me that the first reading of Primo Levi did. There was a simplicity about the survival instinct he wrote about and a perfect balance between observation and emotion in his books. Above all they are books of such dignity and gentleness in the midst of a world which was the very opposite. He describes in his afterword to If This Is A Man that his time in Auschwitz was in some respects his “university”  But his latyer reflections on that time are the most powerful and moving. He ends  the afterword thus

“And, finally, I was helped by my determination., which I stubbornly preserved, to recognise always, even in the darkest days, in my companions and in myself, men, not things, and thus avoid that total humiliation and demoralisation which led so many to spiritual shipwreck”

April 23rd finds Cervantes sneaking out the back door with a grin….!

Today is a bit of a “Happy” this or that day.

It is of course Shakespeare’s birthday and the news is filled with interesting stuff about 37 plays in 37 different languages about to be performed to mark the great man’s birthday and as part of the cultural events on the lead in to London 2012. So the first ‘happy’ of the day is “Happy Birthday Wullie!”

Today also marks St. George’s Day. Now for a Scotsman that’s not necessarily the easiest thing in the world to note or mark! I’m the sort of Scotsman who waxes lyrical about Scotland and all things Scottish, retains a perennial optimism for Scotland to conquer England at sport be it football, rugby, tennis or any other sport and only sulks for a little bit when it never happens, and of course when I watch Braveheart I forget Mel Gibson’s slightly dodgy Scottish accent and have been known to utter the odd derogatory comment to my English friends and families (I’ve even gone as far as chiding my daughter that she is “a daughter of Longshanks – a terrible, terrible thing to be!’, to which she just smiles sweetly and shares a patronising “you’ve got to feel sorry for him!” look with her mother!). However I’m also the sort of Scotsman who actually loves living in England and I love the people here, so, admittedly through slightly gritted teeth as old habits die-hard, my second happy of the day is of course “Happy St. George’s Day!”

Thirdly it’s World Book Night. There are many, many events taking place all over the country, as well as in Germany, Ireland and the USA, which all have the underlying aim of encouraging reading by giving away books. It essentially seeks to give a taste of the joys of books to those who might not be into books and into reading. Consequently much of the focus for the books is on places where there may be people who might be harder to reach readers, including prisons, homeless shelters and care homes. This is the second year of World Book Night but it’s already well established and is likely to remain a hugely important and very worthwhile part of the book calendar. There are 25 books on the list for give-away this year ranging from real-life stories like Joe Simpson’s ‘Touching The Void’ (which is a moving and simply awesome story of one man’s fight for survival), through classics like Pride and Prejudice and Rebecca, and thrillers like Mark Billingham’s “Sleepyhead” to more contemporary fiction like Markus Zusak’s ‘The Book Thief’ (wow!) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Remains of the Day’ (wow x 1000!). So my third “happy” of the day is Happy World Book Night!

But, ‘sneaking out the back door with a grin’, is Miguel Cervantes, who gets my last ‘happy’ because of all of the above he’s the most special to me personally. One of the reasons for the choice of April 23rd as World Book Night was that not only is April 23rd the date of Shakespeare’s birthday (and anniversary of his death), it is also the anniversary of the death of the wonderful Miguel Cervantes, who died on April 23rd 1616. I’ve linked this with a line from a very cheesy Matt Bianco song from the 80’s (a bit of a guilty pleasure for me this song!) which is a line I oft-quote! To me ‘sneaking out the back door with a grin’ is a slightly mischievous, slightly ‘cat’s got the cream’ way of moving out of the scene but really being the star of the show – and that fits Cervantes for me. I loved Don Quixote, absolutely loved it. I first read it one summer in about 1980, as a then student bumming around Greece. It simply made me giggle and laugh out loud from start to finish. I found Sancho Panza and Quixote to be the best comic creations I’d ever read – and even though I first read it over thirty years ago I’ve read nothing to come close to them ever since. As part of a Book Club at work a couple of years back we read “Salmon Fishing In Yemen” which I noticed recently has been made into a film with Ewan McGregor. To be honest I didn’t think much of that book and found only the odd bit here and there which was mildly amusing – for the most part it just seemed a bit dull to me! I think it must be incredibly difficult to write humour (at least to write it in a way that makes me laugh!) – Cervantes definitely had the touch for me! So my fourth and final ‘happy’ of the day is the Happy Anniversary of Cervantes death (having written that it sounds slightly macabre and weird but you know what I mean!!)

Here’s to El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote De La Mancha!