“Only the smoke from the crematoria moves in the bright air, heavenward if there were a heaven.”
In his acclaimed 2007 debut novel Finn, Jon Clinch offers up an inspired imagining of “Pap Finn,” Huck’s ne’er do well father. For his next book, 2010’s Kings of the Earth, he moves on from the Muddy Mississippi to another bygone era in the rustic upstate New York setting for a multifaceted family chronicle, in tribute to the fading voices and legends of his parent’s generation.
It’s not just literary wanderlust driving Clinch, however, as he lights out for new territories beyond American bounds–whether geographic or thematic—and a bleaker family dynamic to the harrowing heart of holocaustal darkness beating at the core of the engrossing and potent The Thief of Auschwitz (available Jan. 15). The unremitting and ineffable horrors signifying World War II concentration camp barbarism makes for a work that amounts to “a second memorial to that same generation, this time honoring those on my wife’s side of the family of man—the Jewish side—whose stories are likewise in danger of being lost,” Clinch says in the Notes and Acknowledgments.
Indeed, the “boot heels of time and history” tramp their bloody trail all over the novelistic dirge as an intertwining narrative chronicles a Polish family of four: Jacob Rosen, a barber; his wife Eidel, a talented artist; tall and robust Max, the 14-yr old son; and his younger sister Lydia, ethereal and beautiful. Together or separately, amidst rumor and uncertainty—one man’s crematorium is another man’s “clinic”–they are herded by Third Reich thugs onto a train bound for Auschwitz and a way station to finality with its “precarious balance of life and death, and love and hate, and good and evil. If it should permit a heart to rise, it will just as surely strike it down.”
And so the ever-expanding process of selection and elimination soon enough calls for an untimely death for the delicate Lydia, while Max is able to pass for an 18-year old man suitable for forced labor alongside Jacob, and Eidel is segregated in the women’s camp. Conditions of crowding, hunger, and deprivation, of course, are deplorable, but other downsides remain unthinkable as Clinch’s vivid sense of place doubles as a disorienting sense of displacement, even at the end of day:
“They lie in the bunk back to front, Max with Jacob behind him, listening to the noises of the sleeping and the sick. It’s hard to fall asleep with the racket and the stench raised by so many collapsing lives—the gasping and the coughing, the scrambling of some individual to the edge of the bunk where he can spill the little contents of his digestive tract onto the floor from one uncontrollable orifice or another—but the alternative is worse, for silence is death.”
The Rosens are not without options or opportunities, however, to help alleviate—in whatever limited way–their own suppression and to keep them from the periodic round-ups for the gas chamber. In part to get Max needed medical attention for an injury, Jacob is able, from a post as the camp’s new barber for the SS elite, to parlay Eidel’s artistic talent for her stint as portrait painter for the deputy commandant’s family. Even Lydia is part and parcel of such reciprocating machinations, though her posthumous role is represented by her mother’s striking painting of her, undertaken in better days but seized from the family upon internment.
Indeed, the painting itself, for a time hanging in the deputy commandment’s home—while he hasn’t the least suspicion that its subject is a Jew–is a key element in setting in motion a series of dramatic events so far-reaching that the saga must be extended via the book’s interspersed chapters devoted to a modern-day Max, a much older and worldly-wiser survivor and celebrated painter, preparing to be honored with a retrospective at the National Gallery in Washington. For the time being, however, he’s “just a broken boy with a badly-healed leg and an empty belly and a stolen past, making his way toward a future that he couldn’t imagine.”
Clinch’s masterful and rich craftsmanship not only assures a cohesive narrative that convincingly sustains such a sweeping storyline. It also allows him to ambitiously expand his thematic horizons in allowing for the promulgation that art does not exist in a vacuum; there is no such thing as art for art’s sake in the midst of crimes against humanity that sees, at best, that “For every beautiful work of art, an equal and opposite atrocity.”
Much like Eidel’s fellow prisoner who seeks out and collects artifacts and scraps and scrawls out stories to put in bottles to secrete throughout the camp as reminders or records of sorts of Hitler’s methodical madness, Eidel cathartically cleanses herself of the repugnance and rage she feels in being forced to idealize a Nazi family on canvas. At night, she draws from her bunk a truer expression of her frame of mind with a “leveling out of things” in a sickening vision, a mocking grotesquerie of horrifying figures who “aren’t human after all, or not entirely. They’re strange and terrifying and highly particular, creatures called up from a very specific nightmare,” headed up by “some kind of demon, perhaps a demon whose function it is to torment lesser demons, perhaps even Satan himself…”
With The Thief of Auschwitz, Jon Clinch succeeds with an assured contribution that places his novel amongst the worthy memorials to a generation, one that indeed honors those on his wife’s side “of the family of man,” and that helps stem the slippery slope of historical heedlessness and collective blackout among “those who cannot remember the past.”