Review: Aaron’s Leap by Magdaléna Platzová, Translated by Craig Cravens
When I first picked up Aaron’s Leap, I was afraid it would seem almost like a textbook reading of the events in Europe leading to World War II. I was expecting something fact-heavy, and was surprised at the humanity of it: This book is not about World War II or Nazi Germany. It’s about people living their lives . . . while the war just so happens to be going on. In that sense, it seems more true to how events actually unfold.
The book weaves together two timelines: the present, as an elderly Kristyna recounts the life and death of her best friend Berta. Berta, a painter, sculptor, and Jew, died in Auschwitz in 1944. Kristyna has Berta’s diaries, and through the weaving of the timelines we see a young Berta fall in love, struggle to create art, and have a love affair with her childhood friend, Max. Max, who is married to a dancer, has an affair with Berta, but forbids her to have a child. Berta feels like a failure both as a woman and as an artist. Can she be both, or are they mutually exclusive?
Before she can figure her life out, she is sent to a concentration camp.
In the forefront we have struggling artists determined to live out their ideologies—they rail against capitalism, they visit psychotherapists, they learn about Freud, they reject God—and we’re tossed into the drama of their lives. We see their internal struggles to create, their love affairs, their abortions.
Oppression comes in tiny, easy-to-swallow droplets: Jews need to wear stars, Jews cannot receive cigarettes as a part of their rations, Jews cannot frequent coffee shops. Evil is slow and steady, systematic, orderly, and it brings to mind what Hannah Arendt termed “the banality of evil.” As readers, we know what is coming, but Berta and her friends hold onto their daily routines to the end. Even the night before being shipped to a concentration camp, Berta has Kristyna over to help her pack. While Berta cries thinking about her unfulfilled potential in life, Kristyna waits for her to fall asleep so she can bed her husband.
Aaron’s Leap is a powerful book that shows the continuous ebb and flow of human life and of self-discovery. Instead of seeing the raw numbers, we are forced to acknowledge that each person who lost their life in the camps was whole, complex, with their own souls and brightness, and they were each on a journey tragically cut short.
For more information, or to purchase a copy, please visit Bellevue Literary Press’s website.
Magdaléna Platzová, translated by Craig Cravens
February 11, 2014
Posted: Jan 28, 2014
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