‘Chasing the King of Hearts’ by Hanna Krall

Chasing the King of Hearts is the newest addition to the Peirene list, and is by internationally acclaimed bestseller Hanna Krall.  The novel appears in its first English translation, which has been well wrought by Philip Boehm.  Chasing the King of Hearts is a little longer than the majority of the books on Peirene’s list, but it is a difficult story to put down.  The entirety of it is told rather simplistically, but this technique only serves to make the horrors of the Holocaust which Krall portrays all the more chilling.

The novel begins in 1942 in the Warsaw Ghetto, and is told entirely from the third person perspective.  It tells the story of Izolda, a young Polish woman, beginning with the pivotal day in which she meets her husband, Shayek, for the first time.  Izolda believes that she is already ‘in love’ with another man, but when she realises she is not and her friends urge her to become engaged, ‘Shayek tosses out: I’m available.’  Izolda works tirelessly as a nurse, and in this way she views the balance between life and death firsthand.  Krall describes the way in which, ‘She tells her husband what death looks like: no soul, no sign.  Then she adds, by way of encouragement: We’re still alive, though.  To which her husband says: Even that is less and less certain.’

The most poignantly portrayed aspect of the novel is the disparity and hopelessness of being Jewish at such a tumultuous period in history.  Izolda and Shayek are called ‘Yids’ by some young boys who pass them, and this is what follows: ‘Izolda keeps her eyes closed and whispers: Your hair is so blond and your skin is so light, but they could tell.  He drapes her sweater around her shoulders.  She hadn’t realised it had slipped, exposing the armband with the blue star’.  To draw attention away from herself, Izolda drastically alters her appearance, dying her hair ‘ash-blonde’, changing her name to Maria Pawlicka and saying that she worked for a Jewish family in order to escape from and gain access back into the ghetto.  The narrative style rallies against the inherent fear of Jewishness – many have ‘terrible looks and a terrible accent’, which means that they can potentially be found out and taken away in convoys to the concentration camps.

The entirety of the book has been split into small vignettes, the majority of them full of sadnesses.  The most powerful sentences are portrayed in relation to Izolda’s own life – for example, when she was younger and learning English from a private tutor, ‘[she] would certainly have mastered English if the teacher hadn’t hanged himself.’  Krall has addressed many themes of importance within Chasing the King of Hearts – the resistance and underground movements in Warsaw, the notion of trust and how easily it can be broken, violence, interrogations, betrayals and deceit, bravery, imprisonment, forced transit to the camps, grief and forgetting – which enable the book to be historically grounded.  In this way, Krall has ensured that her novel does not merely portray the experiences of one woman and her family, but of an entire nation of people.

And now for the not so positive elements of Chasing the King of Hearts.  There are several black and white photographs which have been placed at random points within the text, but none of them have captions, and it is unclear as to who or what the photographs are meant to relate to.  Despite the book’s power, the story does fizzle out a little toward the end.  When the final sections are reached, it feels as though another book entirely has been tagged onto the end, which is a real shame.

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