It might come as a surprise to some of you but this week I decided to devote an article to review a book, or rather books. I believe our literary heritage is as equally important to safeguard as our natural or artistic heritage. Literature is part of our Culture which is why I will regularly write posts dealing with this topic.
A few weeks ago, I read these two novels. Both set into two different time frames and countries, their subject is nonetheless universal: survival. How do you survive when your country, your home is invaded, your life thrown away and your own being reduced to a number or a condition? What would you do to survive? What does it take to survive when your voice has been ripped out of your throat? This is the challenge Pat Barker and Heather Morris faced and brilliantly wrote about in their respective novels.
Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls.
Picture this: London, St Pancras train station, Hatchard bookshop, a few weeks ago. Elegantly set on one of the tables, a book captured my attention. Intrigued, I started to read the summary on the back:
“When the Greek Queen Helen is kidnapped by Trojans, the Greeks sail in pursuit, besieging the city of Troy.
Trapped in the Greek soldiers’ camp is another captured queen, Briseis. Condemned to be bed-slave to Achilles, the man who butchered her family, she becomes a pawn in a menacing game between bored and frustrated warriors. In the centuries after this most famous war, history will write her off, a footnote in a bloody story scripted by vengeful men – but Briseis has a very different tale to tell…”
I did not hesitate one second and ran to the till to buy it. On the journey back home, I was so captivated by the story I almost missed my stop! I had read a quarter of the book already in just one hour. That just proves how much the story and the author’s tale teller talent is compelling. Once this book is opened, you get completely transported to another time, immerged in a well-known and centuries old story to the point you feel as though you are part of it. Pretty powerful. So, what is so special about this novel?
“History is written by the victors.” You know this proverb, don’t you? It will come to no shock to no one if I say that, for as long as mankind has had the power to write, mankind wrote its history to benefit one gender in particular: men. What of women then? Did they not exist? Are they not part of history as well? What happened to them? They were silenced. Silenced by men. Silenced by history. This exactly one of the many points The Silence of the Girls highlights.
We all know the story of the Iliad by Greek poet Homer: Helen, Queen of Sparta, wife of Menelaus is kidnapped by Paris, Prince of Troy, son of King Priam. This outrage sparks one of the biggest conflicts in antique history: the Trojan war. Raise your hands if you remember some of the names: Achilles… Odysseus… Agamemnon… Hector… Patroclus… You recognised these names, didn’t you? Now, raise your hands if you remember: Chryseis…Hecuba…Briseis…Andromeda… Not so much, right? This novel repaired this injustice by choosing a female character as the leader of the story and retelling the events described in the Iliad from the heroine’s or heroines’ viewpoint(s). Have you ever wondered what happened to the girls and women of Ilion’s fallen cities? What was their fates as prisoners of war? Either death or slavery. Purely and simply. Handed as presents to reward the brave Greek heroes who had slaughtered their families and destroyed their homes, they were reduced to nothing more than an object, soulless, worthless, a mere toy the victor could enjoy whenever and wherever he liked. In Homer’s epic poem, one of the only moments two of these prisoners are mentioned is at the origin of Achilles’ wrath. Compelled to give his Trojan sex slave Chryseis back to his father, a priest of Apollo, Agamemnon takes Achilles’ prize and bed-slave Briseis to replace his lost reward, triggering Achilles’ ire. This instant of gift exchange – as that is all the two women are – is perfectly described by Pat Barker in The Silence of the Girls, shining a new light on this part of the story, highlighting the terrible condition of these women.
I do not want to spoil this brilliant novel too much. As you have gathered by now, I enjoyed reading it a lot. I do recommend this book not only because it shifts your point of view on this famous story but also because it is a tale of bravery and survival in times of war. Although set in Antiquity, The Silence of the Girls stuns by its timelessness and relevance to today’s world: what is the fate of women in war torn countries?
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5).
The Tattooist of Auschwitz.
When I went to this bookshop in St Pancras, I saw this novel on one of the shelves. However, I had promised myself I would only buy one book that day – I would buy a whole bookshop if I would just listen to myself – I picked The Silence of the Girls. That said, once I had finished Pat Barker’s novel, I immediately bought The Tattooist of Auschwitz as it was next on my waiting list. Here is the summary on the back cover:
“In 1942, Lale Sokolov arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau. He was given the job of tattooing the prisoners marked for survival – scratching numbers into his fellow victims’ arms in indelible ink to create what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust.
Waiting in line to be tattooed, terrified and shaking, was a young girl. For Lale – a dandy, a jack-the-lad, a bit of a chancer – it was love at first sight. And he was determined not only to survive himself, but to ensure this woman, Gita, did too.
So begins one of the most life-affirming, courageous, unforgettable and human stories of the Holocaust: the love story of the Tattooist of Auschwitz.”
The Tattooist of Auschwitz tells the true story of Lale or Lali Sokolov and Gita Furman, two Slovakian young people sent to the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in occupied Poland during WWII. The author, Heather Morris, met Lali Sokolov in the early 2000’s in Australia. He told her his story, his time in Auschwitz and his love story with Gita Furman. I am not going to lie, this novel brought me to tears. Not only because of the fact the story was set in a concentration camp during the most terrible and horrific time in modern history, but also because I was moved by the bravery of these people who, against all odds, decided to survive. It has been pointed out in many newspaper articles that to do what he did to survive, Lali had to accept the duality and consequences of his position in the camp and with the S.S soldiers. Yes, I agree. He was in a conflicting position and this is clearly demonstrated many times in the novel. He was a Jew who was forced to work for the Nazis, tattooing numbers on people’s wrists – most of whom shared the same faith as him – depriving them of their identity and humanity. He had a ‘privileged’ life inside the camp, having his own place to sleep instead of the barracks and more food when his companions were starved to death. Nevertheless, he did many things to help people inside the camp. I think before judging someone for what he did or did not do, condemning him/her without understanding or knowing the full story, ask yourself this question: what would you have done in a similar situation? I personally do not know how I would react, but I know for sure I admire Lali’s courage and determination. He is a hero. They all are. Each in their own ways.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a blend between a historical fiction and memoirs. Some events might have been obliterated or compressed, some facts and situations blurry. This cannot be hold against Lali who told his account of his time in Auschwitz over sixty years after the events. It is Lali and Gita’s story. A story of survival, courage, determination and love. This book is a page turner. I could not put it down. I highly recommend this novel and also secretly hope someone will make a movie out of it. That is how great I think it is.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5).
The Silence of the Girls: https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-silence-of-the-girls/pat-barker/9780241983201
The Tattooist of Auschwitz: https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-tattooist-of-auschwitz/heather-morris/9781785763670