Arbeit Macht Frei

Here’s a short passage from Primo Levi’s excellent novel, The Periodic Table:

imagesOut of the shadows came men whom Fascism had not crushed—lawyers, professors, and workers—and we recognized in them our teachers, those for whom we had futilely searched until then in the Bible’s doctrine, in chemistry, and on the mountains. Fascism had reduced them to silence for twenty years, and they explained to us that Fascism was not only a clownish and improvident misrule but the negator of justice; it had not only dragged Italy into an unjust and ill-omened war, but it had arisen and consolidated itself as the custodian of a detestable legality and order, based on the coercion of those who work, on the unchecked profits of those who exploit the labor of others, on the silence imposed on those who think and do not want to be slaves, and on systematic and calculated lies. They told us that our mocking, ironic intolerance was not enough; it should turn into anger, and the anger should be channeled into a well-organized and timely revolt …

Interesting. Levi’s picture of Fascism in Italy around the second world war could very well have been written to describe the current situation in the United States of America. Read Levi’s words again … think about it. Don’t be reduced to silence.

 

Totto-chan

Timages-1otto-chan, the Little Girl at the Window is a children’s book written by Japanese television personality and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Tetsuko Kuroyanagi. Published in 1981 it became an instant bestseller in Japan. The common wisdom is that the book is about the values of the unconventional education that Kuroyanagi received at Tomoe Gakuen, a Tokyo elementary school founded by educator Sosaku Kobayashi during World War II, and it is considered her childhood memoir.

Very true but there is much more being expressed in the simple language of this extraordinary novel. It is perhaps better seen as an adult novel written in a way that both focuses on the education and development of children but also slyly informs the adult reader with alternate views on the development of children, especially in opposition to many of the long-held beliefs and practices prevalent in Japan before the war.

Continue reading

Aurelia Paris

The WarMarguerite Duras ends her memoirs of the aftermath to World War II with a story she wrote back then (subsequently revised) called Aurelia Paris. It’s very short but powerful. The scene is an apartment where a older woman has assumed the care of a young girl after the girl’s parents were taken by the German police. The woman sits outside the door with a pistol, expecting to kill the German police when they come and then turn the gun on the girl and herself to guarantee that they will not be captured.

At the same time, they are in the flightpath of the heavy bombers heading for Berlin and half-expect to be blown up every time they hear the roar of the planes’ engines. The girl is attuned to the sound of the planes and can report their positions across the map of Europe.

A simple story but, as I said, powerful.

The entire collection titled The War is a vivid recollection of the horrors and the intense human emotions that came with the war. A very important work and highly recommended.

Anne Frank as Literature

Anne FrankI have always had a problem seeing Anne Frank’s Diary on the must read or top 100 lists. Although I had never read this book, I felt I knew the story through all the commentary and press it received and couldn’t imagine that a thirteen year old girl had written a text, even in diary form, which was of lasting literary value. As a poignant and emotional reporting on the atrocities of the German occupation during the war, it naturally qualifies for study, otherwise it is 1952’s answer to Love Story or Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

Yet several things have expanded my understanding relative to the Diary. First, I read it. What I found was a bit too mature and too orchestrated to pass as the writings of young girl in hiding during the war. Then I realized that the translator probably had as much to do with the mature prose as did Anne Frank. A little further reading and it became clear that Anne was in fact a budding writer and spent a great deal of her time editing and revising her work for publication as an account of the lives of the Dutch during the conflict. Each of these extra-textual things is helpful in explaining the quality of the writing, even for a thirteen year old girl.

Continue reading