Last week’s book was about identity; the identity as a woman and as a citizen of a country. This week’s read is also about identity but from a slightly different point of view.
The next literary destination in my reading challenge Around Europe in 14 Books is Poland and the book I chose is Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts. It’s a novel about the Holocaust, therefore the identity question revolves around being Jewish. Interestingly, Krall herself has survived the war by hiding in a cupboard.
This is, as far as I remember, my second Holocaust book after Anne Frank’s diary. I’ve read some other works in which World War II featured in the background but never from the point of view of the victims. I admit that war novels are not among my favourites, so I was afraid that this Polish read would put me off with depressing or graphic details. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.
Read the previous posts:
Around Europe in 14 Books – #9: Poland
Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall
Original name: Król Kier Znów Na Wylocie (Polish)
Author: Hanna Krall
Translator: Philip Boehm
Publisher: Peirene Press
Series: Peirene’s Turning Point: Revolutionary Moments Series
Genre: historical fiction, WWII
Location: Poland, Germany, Austria, Israel
My rating: 3.5/4 out of 5 stars
The Warsaw Ghetto 1942: When Izolda’s husband, Shayek, is imprisoned, she sets out to release him. She changes her name, her hair, her religion. Eventually she is captured and deported to Auschwitz. But even there, she trusts that her love will save them both.
The heroine of Chasing the King of Hearts is Izolda, a Jew living in the Warsaw Ghetto. I think that calling her a heroine is apt, not just because she’s the protagonist but also because throughout the novel she’s continuously on the quest of protecting herself, her husband and their families.
The opening chapters briefly describe Izolda’s encounter with Shayek, who will become her husband. The narration doesn’t dwell on all the details or emotions involved; it quickly shifts to the escalating situation in the country. Izolda refuses to stay in the ghetto, waiting to be taken away. So she gets out of there and she attempts to save her parents and her husband’s family. Not all goes well, and to make things worse, one day she is separated from Shayek. It is at this point that the man becomes Izolda’s life purpose and sole reason for saving her own skin. He is the king of hearts that needs to be chased; the nickname comes from her fortune-telling friend who reads Izolda’s future through playing cards.
In order to move around freely without attracting the attention of the enemy’s forces, Izolda undergoes a makeover with the help of a friend, Lilusia. She dyes her hair ash blonde, adopts a high-pitched voice and becomes Maria Pawlicka, a Catholic Pole. This is an important part of the book because it highlights the identity question. What is it exactly that makes Izolda – who doesn’t even speak Hebrew – a Jew? Is changing the hair colour enough? Apparently not, as there are other aspects that escape Izolda’s understanding, such as her handbag. Unfortunately, even practising a Christian prayer will not help her to keep her cover from the police and the Gestapo:
Poor Lilusia – she thought about handbags and medallions, but it never occurred to her there might be a Jewish way of saying the Hail Mary.
There are two other contrasting and converging thematic factors in this novel: the war as a collective experience and the war as an extraordinary individual ordeal. The Jewish community shares the same experience, if not the same fate, and Izolda unavoidably mingles with other Jews and witnesses what happens to them. However, her experience is also extremely individual. She is not part of the resistance, she almost doesn’t care about others; when she helps strangers, she is challenging God to help her back. She’s only determined to reach her husband, who’s kept in the Mauthausen camp.
It is an individual experience also because Izolda’s journey is outstanding. It really is a journey, as she is never just captured and thrown into captivity. She is imprisoned, sent to camps and forced labour. She’s even sent to Auschwitz. But in some way or another, she always manages to walk out, to escape. She is always on the go, from Poland to Germany to Austria, and back again, hence the novel turns into an adventure thriller. Her actions wouldn’t be possible without the help of friends and friends of friends and complete strangers, with whom there is a continuous exchange of goods, money and services. Thus, her individual experience is constantly intertwined with the collective one.
Survival wouldn’t be possible without Izolda’s wit as well. She doesn’t wallow in negative thoughts but steels herself against all adversities. All is done with the king of hearts in her mind. Perhaps unbeknownst to herself, she survives thanks to him. There are times, especially when things go wrong for friends and family members, when Izolda thinks about what-ifs. However, she eventually realises that if she hadn’t done certain things, she might have not survived. Therefore, survival depends on acting and moving, not on waiting for something to happen. Izolda is shaping her own destiny.
The narrative style of the novel is elegant and poignant. Sometimes it seems like it lacks the emotion that one expects to find in a war-themed romance novel. Nevertheless, I never felt detached from Izolda and what was happening to her, even without visceral emotion on display. The resoluteness of her character and the laconic account of her feelings are a symptom of the numbness, the aloofness and the identity crisis pervading among those escaping the war’s horrors. And, speaking of war’s horrors, I was relieved not to see any crude details. The horrors are there but are described subtly – the cruel selection of the prisoners, the smoke coming from the crematorium at the camp, seeing someone wearing the knitted cardigan of a friend who had supposedly left for Honduras. They are details planted there by the author which the readers have to decipher on their own.
Another aspect of the narration which I liked is the ‘Armchair’ chapters. In these short chapters (although all chapters in this book are generally short), Izolda tells her story to her daughters and granddaughters. This is not just the classic narrative framework with the character sitting in an armchair while recounting her past story, as the book does not even start in this manner. In these chapters, Izolda is imagining herself telling the story to her family in the near future. This eventually happens in the last chapters of the book, as the story progresses to the post-war period and towards the present day. These chapters show how the war and its horrors inevitably alter the characters of the victims, so despite the survival, the happy ending is not that obvious. It is also ironic how Izolda ends up living in Israel, with her daughters and granddaughters speaking fluent Hebrew. It seems like the later generation is more fond of their heritage, yet the language barrier keeps it from fully bonding with the older generation.
Chasing the King of Hearts is yet another valuable literary testimony of that horrible part of mankind’s history which must never be forgotten. Without any excessive details, Hanna Krall conveys the heart-pounding fear, the stupor and the resilience of war victims, making this novel a must-read for anyone who cares about preserving the memory of these people.