London Reads – Big and satisfying, novel a national epic

Gratitude is a big, epic and satisfying experience and a worthy contender for the London Reads 2008-2009 title.

 

 

 

Joseph Kertes’ novel is set in Hungary during the late stages of the Second World War. Hungary has been spared many of the horrors of the war but as Gratitude’s opening pages make clear, the Holocaust has come to Hungary’s Jews. Kertes’ series of interwoven stories begin with one of his heroic survivors, Lili Bandel, whose family is rounded up in early 1944 by the Nazis and their Hungarian fascist allies. Dressed for make-believe in a wedding gown and hidden behind a wardrobe, Lili is able to avoid the Nazis and makes her way to Budapest.

 

Lili’s story becomes part of Kertes’ overarching design, which brings his fictional characters into contact with real-life heroes (Raoul Wallenberg) and demons (Adolf Eichmann). There are tragic losses and miraculous escapes on the way to the post-war final pages.

 

The elegiac tone of Gratitude resonates in a paragraph about a wedding procession on the streets of Budapest in 1945: “The wedding party that moved down Andrassy toward Rumbach was just a vestige of the original family, more like a band of itinerant actors playing the Becks, Iszaks and Bandels, the cast too small, the costumes too big. But the sun shone, the ladies sported carnations, and a new household was about to be established.”

 

Kertes is an accomplished children’s author and has published other adult novels before Gratitude. One senses that this is his big work, an almost 500-page tribute to his own family and the Hungary that was.

 

The historical background to Gratitude is perhaps known to London Reads participants through the London Jewish Film Festival. At least three of its screenings — Sunshine, Blessed is the Match and Gloomy Sunday — have been about the Holocaust and Hungary. It is appropriate to mention these films, because there is a cinematic sweep to Kertes’ narrative. The great film impresario Alexander Korda is a relative of several of Kertes’ characters.

 

Some of the novelist’s most memorable scenes — including an escape by balloon; the vicious murder of two Jews, a father and son, on a Danube bridge; the role of Wallenberg’s Alfa Romeo is stopping a train on its way to the death camps — captivate as great cinema does.

 

Even as he handles a huge cast of characters and complex plot, with history relentlessly grinding on in the background, Kertes keeps a flow of imagery and association going on around them. Gratitude’s characters love music. So there are references to Mendelssohn, In the Mood, Satie, Dvorak, klezmer (even if the characters don’t call it that), Gershwin, Bach and much more.

 

They also love food. There are feasts in happy times. There are meals of hyena and horse and pigeon in times of starvation. There is food, of a ghastly sort, in Auschwitz, the hellish scene of Gratitude’s darkest pages.

 

The characters also love visual arts, performance, poetry, novels, film. The references here range from Kafka to Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti, a real-life character who provides Gratitude’s sombre opening reflections, from Keats to Laurel and Hardy.

 

For all this richness of association, there is more to Gratitude. The novel is also a national epic, a story of Hungary and its Jews, covering hundreds of years. As Gratitude ends, it is apparent that some characters are preparing to forgive Hungary its evils and are trying to begin again. Others find that the ugliness and cruelty of the Nazis and their allies have stained Hungary forever and they must leave.

 

With hundreds of thousands of deaths in Gratitude’s historical background, Kertes somehow makes every death in the novel meaningful. Among his points is that the casual cruelty did not stop with the Red Army’s victory over the Nazis. A shocking death scene – because it is so abrupt – sees one of Kertes’ middle-range characters shot by a Red Army soldier. The character, a woman, had somewhat drunkenly offered the soldier a drink as a tribute. The soldier took the drink – and then shot her.

 

Also admirable is Kertes’ handling of Wallenberg and Eichmann. The Swede is a brave saint who works closely with one of Gratitude’s fictional characters, Paul Beck, to save thousands of Jews from Eichmann and the Nazis. Beck searches desperately for his friend after Wallenberg disappears while negotiating with the Soviets. (In 2003, a Swedish commission blamed the government for failing to follow leads in the 1945 disappearance of Wallenberg, who was captured by Soviet troops. In 2001, Russia acknowledged that Wallenberg and his driver were imprisoned for political reasons until they died, but didn’t say how, where or when they died.)

Eichmann is a shadowy, menacing presence. There is perhaps a hint in Gratitude of the way justice would eventually find Eichmann. Kertes refers to Nazis, fleeing in the final months of the war, escaping to Argentina.

 

Some Jews, who had fled to Argentina earlier, would find themselves alongside those Nazis. Eichmann, who organized the extermination of the Jews, was found in Argentina, abducted by Israeli agents in 1960, tried and hanged.

 

Let me advocate that you read Gratitude — and marvel at the world Kertes has created.

 

 

Book event

 

Feature book: Gratitude, by Joseph Kertes, Viking Canada

When: Jan. 14, 7 p.m.
Where: Central Library , Stevenson & Hunt Room
251 Dundas St., London

Celebrity readers Paul Davenport and Delilah Deane Cummings for the monthly discussion. RSVP to programs@uwo.ca or call 519-661-2111 x 85739.

More information: www.londonreads.uwo.ca