MORE GREAT READS FOR AUGUST, 2014
Love and Treasure, by Ayelet Waldman
The page-turner: the Unputdownable Book. Every dedicated reader hugs themselves whenever they are fortunate enough to savour such a treat, the only disadvantage being that these literary fixes are over far too soon.
But who cares? I would rather burn the midnight oil to finish a great story than yawn for a few minutes a night over a bad one.
And ‘Love and Treasure’ fits the bill admirably. Ms Waldman has something for everyone in her lovely story (despite initial prose that if not purple is deepest mauve); history buffs will be impressed with her meticulous research; those who require strong characters and strong plots will heave sighs of satisfaction; and thriller readers will rejoice at the novel’s fast pace.
At the end of World War Two, Europe is a broken continent full of refugees trying to find a home – any home, and ghostly survivors released from the concentration camps, trying to find their loved ones: the Allied victors have a massive, daunting task to provide food, shelter and vital information for the shattered remnants of Jewish Europe.
To complicate the situation further a train arrives in Salzburg, Austria from Hungary, containing a huge cargo of watches, jewellery, furs, bullion, china dinner services and antique furniture. The pompous little official accompanying the treasure demands a receipt from the American forces who stop the train, and a promise that the train’s contents be eventually returned to the Hungarian government, ‘its rightful owners’.
Lieutenant Jack Wiseman is given the unenviable task of trying to create an inventory of everything on the train and it eventually becomes clear to him that the ‘treasure’ has been looted from the Jews of Hungary, forced to relinquish to Hungarian officials the entire contents of their homes in a vain attempt to avoid the inevitable: the camps.
Wiseman, himself a Jew, is further horrified to discover that his own forces are prepared to ‘second’ on behalf of certain American Generals obliged to entertain, beautiful crystal stemware, dinner services and napery, a fact that he finds abhorrent: this huge cargo has owners. It should be kept in trust until they or their heirs can reclaim it.
Wiseman is an honourable man and protects as well as he can the cargo entrusted to him – until he meets Hungarian Ilona, a survivor of Auschwitz who refuses to go back to her country until she can reunite with her beloved sister, whom she is sure is still alive – ‘she couldn’t be dead; she was an athlete. She was so strong. She is not dead!' Ilona, the ultimate survivor, tolerates him for the food he brings her. He has his uses, as he demonstrates with touching reliability, but he is not part of her overall plan; he can be discarded without a backward glance, which is exactly what occurs.
So Wiseman, that paragon of virtue, steals from the treasure one item: a gold and enamel pendant of a peacock, exotic and strange, but a perfect symbol of Ilona and his dashed hopes for a future with her.
And the mystery of the ownership of the peacock pendant becomes the core of the plot, from its origin to its eventual fate. At the same time Ms Waldman takes the reader on an exploration of what it means to be a Jew: from those who survived the Death camps; to Israelis who despised those who still lived, convinced that they would rather have died fighting than walk meekly to the ovens; to 21st century Jewry, itself rife with bias.
Ms Waldman’s story reminds me of another marvellous novel (see August, 2010 review below), ‘The Invisible Bridge’ by Julie Orringer – an oldie but a goodie in our library –also dealing with the wartime plight of the Jews of Hungary: these books are very different in prose style and characterisation but have the same message of tenacity and resolve innate in a people who refuse to yield. Highly recommended.
THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE, by Julie Orringer
The novel starts in 1937, when Hungarian student Andras Levi wins a scholarship to attend the Ecole Speciale, a venerable school of Architecture in Paris. His life and that of his brothers Tibor and Matyas are chronicled; their hopes, dreams and ambitions; their love affairs and eventual marriages; then the agonizing privations they suffer as part of Hungary’s Jewish ‘Labour Force’, cannon fodder as the expendable front line of Hungary’s Army fighting for Germany against the Allies.
The war years are predictably horrendous, not only for the unimaginable loss of beloved family, but the destruction of entire cities and lifestyles, bombed out of existence. How could anything ever be resurrected from such annihilation? Despite the seriousness of the subject, Ms. Orringer has not written a tragedy; rather it is a compelling story of Life in all its guises; heart-wrenching, comic, dramatic, powerful, triumphant and moving – which is what life can be for all of us . This is a great read.