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Remembering Mauthausen

January 2, 2012

Theophrastus wrote about remembering Mauthausen, so I want to respond with how I have remembered Mauthausen over the last few weeks. I have just finished reading these three books by Canadian authors which nourish the memory of those lost in concentration camps and killing fields.

In The Far Side of the Sky, a new novel by Daniel Kalla, the main characters, Viennese Jews, lose friends and relatives to Mauthausen before escaping to Shanghai, where they once again risk annhilation when Japanese troops enter the city. The action moves from Kristallnacht in Vienna to the massacre of Nanjing. The characters are appealing, all dealing with the difficulties of biracial identity, lost family members and forming new relationships in midlife. We cheer them on, even though Kalla’s prose does not do justice to the inner self. In fact, I almost put this book down, but when the action moved into the operating room, I became fully engaged, and enjoyed every minute thereafter of the plot-driven historical drama. No wonder, Daniel Kalla is a Vancouver emergency room doctor and writes about what he knows with satisfying clarity.

In Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan, a Victoria, B.C. writer, the main character, Hiero, ends up in Mauthausen, “The very name of it gives you the shivers.”

In 1939 Berlin, Sid Griffiths, an African-American bass player, and his friend, Chip Jones, belong to a popular jazz band. Composed of African-American and German musicians, the Hot Time Swingers play the city’s clubs and cabarets. Eventually, Hieronymous Falk, a brilliant Afro-German trumpeter, joins the ensemble. He is the son of a French African soldier and a white German mother, a member of a despised population known as the Rhineland bastards. As the Nazi threat grows, Hiero’s racial heritage places him in constant danger. To make matters worse, the Nazis label jazz the degenerate music of blacks and Jews.

After the band is involved in a fatal brawl, and the Nazis deport their Jewish piano player, Chip, Hiero and Sid flee to France. In Paris, where they believe they will be safe, they audition for Louis Armstrong. It is their dream come true. But French officials have already started rounding up Germans, and after the occupation, Nazis begin rounding up undesirables. Both developments place Hiero at risk.

Edugyan illustrates how the Germans treated blacks according to their nationality. African Americans – mainly artists and diplomats – could move about with the proper documents, while Hiero, a native of Germany, is considered a despicable outsider. Globe and Mail

In The Disappeared, by Kim Echlin, the main character seeks her lost lover in Cambodia, where so many died in the killing fields.

Canadian novelist Echlin (Elephant Winter) derives a powerful, transcendent love story from the Cambodian genocide. Anne Greves, a motherless 16-year-old student, meets a Cambodian refugee, Serey, working as a math instructor amid the heady music scene of late-1970s Montreal, and they fall irredeemably in love. Serey’s family got him out of Pol Pot’s Cambodia, although he is waiting to be able to return and find them; Anne’s father, a successful engineer of prosthetics, does not approve of Anne’s exotic, older boyfriend, and when, as her father predicted, Serey leaves her, disappearing for 11 years, Anne journeys to Phnom Penh to find him. There she comes face to face with the terrible fallout of the collapsed Khmer Rouge dictatorship. The beautifully spare narrative is daringly imaginative in the details, drawing the reader deep inside the wounded capital city. Anne’s single-mindedness drives the action, although her insistence on Western values of accountability knocks hollowly against the machinery of a ruthless military state. Echlin employs some implausible romance plotting and spoils the suspense early on, yet she creates a sorrowfully compelling world.

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