If you’re a fiction writer, a dreamer like Joseph or just a liar, and you want to get a man out of a burning house you just say, or write, “The man got out of the burning house.” You can gift the man with wings, introduce a providential angel or a magical butterfly out of any unwritten bestiary, whatever — this is the craft, and the privilege, of make-believe, of happy endings and the American film industry.
But how, as a fiction writer, to treat a true premise — say history, whose facts are of the utmost holiness? How, or even if, to deal with a premise that resists the imagination at best, that usurps it and renders it null at worst? A history that if altered in the interests of the imagination would deny the lives of those who survived it? Of course, this is Cynthia Ozick’s (and earlier, Ibn Gabirol’s) Second Commandment question: Can, and should, writers make graven images out of our past? For our Jewish lives, this given history, the unalterable, is, not was, the Holocaust; for Hanna Krall, this is the burning house that was Poland.
Born in Warsaw in 1937, Krall trained as a reporter and best known for her pastiche of interviews on the Warsaw Ghetto (“To Steal a March on God”), has an answer to all of this as stripped of nonsense as any front-page dispatch: don’t invent, she tells us — just report, stay quiet, she pleads. Just listen.
“Describing any true event involves moral dilemmas,” Krall has warned in interviews. “When your story is about real life, you cannot intervene.”
Thank God Krall had the courage to resist imagination; it’s a decision of practice as much as of worldview from which many American writers of late — especially those of younger generations who are rewriting the Holocaust from diluted sources — would do well to take counsel. Amid all this inner silence, Krall hasn’t descended into eulogy or mere history. Instead she’s dug into life, into the past, emerging only now in an excellent English translation with 12 accounts of lives shattered and unredeemed. From a Polish Jewish pianist too tortured to own his fame to an imprisoned member of the infamous Baader-Meinhof faction, from the fates of Jews from the Galician shtetl of Izbica to a stranger dying of AIDS in an America too fat and too happy, Krall assays a shared past of European suffering that transcends politics and religion, regimes and genocide in a few hundred pages that loom like a headline of headstones.
These stories are terse, fragmented into short chapters like bursts of machine-gun fire interlarded with often-whimsical footnotes and with erudite references to obscure, dry texts. They’re less written than they are reported, with quotation marks dominating any greater narrative; whole lives are recounted between commas, population statistics are given as much emotional turn as are descriptions of murder. Indeed, this is page A1 of a metropolitan newspaper — as written by a latter-day Proust. “A long time ago Marcin B. had ordered the murder of three people. One of them lies buried in Marcin B.’s barn. Another lies in Marcin B.’s woods. (The barn and the woods are in the village of Pryzlesie.) The third, who was supposed to die, is Blatt. The bullet intended for him has been lodged in his jaw for fifty years.”
This is the opening of one of Krall’s stories. Another bears a chapter comprising only of a list of names: “Josl the scribe, Young Pinhasowicz, Abram Grincwajg, doctor…” and so on, for more than a page. Yet another — the collection’s best, “The Tree”— reserves its entire essence for its final, and only, footnote.
The precedents for this type of “journalistic” art writing are there, but faint and far flung; it seems, while reading her immensely strange style, that Krall has invented not only a new and incredibly potent form of expression, but its precursors, too, and their work — indeed an entire genre of historiography performed Marx-style — “from the ground up.” Were an accounting to be made, the Borges of the first “Iniquity” stories would be an obvious ancestor; the paragraph-long lives of Danilo Kis’s Jews would be another. Also in evidence is Bernard Malamud in his last two stories (the “capsule biographies” of Alma Mahler and Virginia Woolf, in which each fact gets its own line), the Old World fact-finding ramblings of W.G. Sebald and Alexander Kluge, and
the slow decay of Walter Benjamin’s project in Paris. Still, this illustrious pantheon does not constellate the brilliance that is Krall. There are more of filmmaking’s pitiless cuts in her work, more of photography’s quieter moments, even hints of the Internet and hypertext, and of course an enormous chorus of the harsh music that made this prose century the century of daily reportage.
One miracle, among many here, is that despite Krall’s documentary inclinations, there is still much mystery, the greatest of which being the author herself. In the end, one must assume that the “I” in each story, the “relation” relating the facts related to her, is Krall, appearing here as a witness and a witness only. It’s already late in the volume, on page 191, when she finally reveals herself in a manner shockingly offhand, given the context (an account of the last days of the Warsaw Ghetto): “My work as a reporter has taught me that logical stories, without riddles and holes in them, in which everything is obvious, tend to be untrue,” she writes. “And things that cannot be explained in any fashion really do happen. In the end, life on earth is also true, but it cannot be logically explained.”
Indeed it seems that while reading Krall, logical explanation is, strangely, the purview of the fictioneers and the fabulists among us, those who spin yarns with which we might bind the world into a manageable bundle. Someone like Krall, here just to assemble the facts, to sift through the ruins only in order to make a report to the academy, seems more bound to the irrational, the absurd — for the simple and in no way hackneyed reason that it is, they are.
This might seem like a convenient turnabout or transposition of artistic intentions, but it’s much more than that: It’s an upheaval necessary for a fresh, and freshly horrific, consideration of the horrible subject at hand. In the final analysis, which never can be final, especially in a work in which world history has become the history of the individual, eventually all intelligent criticisms of Krall must take a cue from her. As a critic of the multiple voices who in these pages tell Krall her “own stories” — friends, neighbors, strangers, hippies, monks and survivors — she is most curious: She never rules, only listens; the tongue of her people being ripped out, she has become their ear.
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The Woman From Hamburg:
And Other True Stories
By Hanna Krall, translated by Madeline G. Levine
Other Press, 256 pages, $19.