Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Auschwitz Violin - Maria Angels Anglada

  'Anglada writes with elegance and subtlety, the brevity of the story only adding to its emotional power'.

John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

 At only 109 pages this is an extremely short novel, in fact it is more a novella than novel. I ploughed through it in less than 2 1/2 hours last night and still had time enough to read 140 pages of a Steve McQueen biography I then started. So what is there to say on something so short?

 Well first of all like How Many Miles to Babylon? it isn't easy! This novella is about a violin maker ( called a 'luthier' ), in on of the sub-camps that made up Auschwitz. The camp commandant finds out he is a violin maker and forces him to make a violin as he collects musical instruments. The novel focuses on protagonist Daniel making the violin under the threat of beatings, constant hunger and other deprivations. Through the camp's grapevine he discovers the commandant and the camp's sadistic doctor have made a bet as to whether Daniel can complete the violin within a set time. Daniel never discovers the time frame but he delivers up the violin and survives the war. 

 In essence the novel is about the mental struggle of life in a concentration camp, as much of the graphic nature is absent in lieu of the mental anguish of living under such conditions. Life is described through Daniel as an individual and his observations speak for the millions of victims.

 I'm constantly amazed at so much can be said with the use of so little words. This novella doesn't go into graphic details of life in the camps but it provides enough because most readers will already know something of the Holocaust. So the brevity of the deprivations means Anglada could concentrate more on Daniel's making of the violin. But it goes deeper than that as she wonderfully describes Daniel's workmanship. In making the violin Daniel is able to mentally escape for a time each day the horrors surrounding him. As he is under the commandants orders he is pretty much left alone from the guards. He certainly isn't immune from starvation and illness as he doesn't get any special treatment either.

 This isn't a particularly original novella or premise as such. There are many fictional works on Holocaust victims finding beauty amongst the horror, but Anglada has written a work of such crystalline simplicity and humanity it was hard to ignore. It is the simple premise that among the greatest crime against humanity ever committed people could still find beauty, passion, humanity, and life from everything good about mankind. Daniels' making of the violin is sandwiched in between a short narrative on how the violin survived the war, and how the man who played it to the commandant was found in Sweden and reunited with it through Daniel's daughter.

 In short Anglada has written the Holocaust and condensed it into 109 pages. She has concisely touched on all its salient details and inter-woved it into a then and now narrative. She has also opened each chapter with a real document pertaining to the Holocaust. I think anyone who has a passing or more serious knowledge of the events will recognise the brevity of Anglada's delivery, and marvel at how she could so concisely condense such vast events into only 109 pages. It is all there from survivor guilt, life in the camps, the will to live, the wish to die, the horror, starvation, disease, beatings, inhumanity, and in amongst it all the humanity shown by a very few at great risk to themselves. Anglada at one stage introduces men called Schindler and Bernadotte into her text as reminders of the good even within all the evil.

 Certainly not the best Holocaust novel I have read, but its brevity is staggering as Anglada has covered so many aspects of the events in such a small novella. It is a fine piece of writing, and whilst not totally original in premise it is still worth reading, not only for the subject matter, but as a quiet look at abbreviated writing and the skill involved in it.


  1. Grim reading I take it, Schindler's Ark remains in my memory to this day.

  2. Grim but not graphic. Schindler's Ark is far superior but like I said Anglada is looking more into the mental side of the victims rather than the physical.
    I suppose anything to do with the Holocaust will always be grim in one way or another.