Out of the abyss

I was entranced this weekend by Eva Weaver's The puppet boy of Warsaw, a holocaust novel, which is not dissimilar in style to the previously reviewed Book Thief. Puppet boy has two main narrative strands - the eponymous puppet boy, Mika, who survives the Warsaw ghetto at least partly because of his puppets; and the post-war experiences in Siberia and Germany of the German soldier, Max, who crosses Mika's life on the edge of the ghetto. Mika's puppets unite the two worlds, and continue to be a unifying factor into the twenty-first century.

Weaver writes entrancingly, and there is much to be admired in this novel. It's also often brutally honest, not least in its descriptions of the horrors of the ghetto and the everyday cruelties of life within its walls. As the puppets bring happiness to the children of the ghetto, Weaver also shows the heroism and humanity of the people trapped there; not least the wonderful work of Janusz Korczak and his staff, who dedicated their lives to the children of the ghetto orphanage.

Like Book thief, Mika's story veers between moments of great happiness and pride in humanity; and sadness and disgust at the depths to which it can sink.

Max's tale of a German soldier's journey back home from the Siberian gulag is a bit more of a standard adventure, albeit a very good one. Max's homecoming will be marred by the changes that have taken place because of the war; not least a Germany that is trying to come to terms with its history. While Mika tries to deal with his own guilt at colluding with the Nazis (in actual fact not collusion as he had no choice), Max tries to cope with his guilt at the treatment of Mika - it's not clear how much, if any, guilt he feels at his treatment of the other Jews within the ghetto.

Meanwhile his grand-daughter, Mara, will, courtesy of the puppets, retrace her grandfather's own journey to the ghetto; and will seek the forgiveness that her grandfather appeared unwilling or unable to seek.

Here, around the areas of forgiveness and inhumanity, I think the novel was at its most uneasy. This may be, at least partially, because of the author's own perspective. Weaver is German, but not Jewish. I was interested to see how my own perspective changed throughout the novel. I felt, quite naturally, great sympathy for the Jews rounded up in the ghetto and taken to Treblinka; but did you know that the same cattle trucks that went to Treblinka also took German soldiers to exile in Siberia? Many of them weren't released until the late 1950s. I found it much harder to empathise with them, even though many of the soldiers met a terrible fate in Stalin's prison camps.

I like to think as a liberal that we should condemn all inhumanity, but it's much easier to sympathise with the bullied than the bullies (as any schoolchild will tell you), and this becomes very evident in Weaver's novel.

It's not a perfect tale, it doesn't always mesh well together, and the writing seems sometimes to sit uncomfortably on a border between Young Adult and Adult fiction, with a rather uneasy foot in both camps. But there is much to celebrate here - a stunning tale of courage in the most desperate of circumstances; Puppet boy shows humanity at its worst, but also at its best.


Margaret Jones said…
Since writing the post, I've seen the documentary "1945: the savage peace" which puts the lives of Germans captured in formerly occupied territories into context. It is chilling, but worth watching for a history that is little known outside Germany - http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b05x30lb/1945-the-savage-peace

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