The history nerd within me is absolutely fascinated by books which take World War Two as their focus, particularly so in instances where fact and fiction have been woven together. Such is the case in Maria Angels Anglada’s novella, The Auschwitz Violin. Translated into English by Martha Tennent, it was originally published in Catalan. Anglada, who died in 1999, was one of the most important figures in Catalonia, as well as one of the region’s most prestigious authors.
The Auschwitz Violin has been on my radar for a number of years, but I was only recently able to find a copy via my local library system. Standing at just 109 pages, this book is a slim one, but even before beginning, I expected it to pack quite a punch.
Each chapter opens with an authentic document of World War Two; the first of these details the fatal shooting of a Jewish woman along the ghetto border, who is trying to steal turnips from a cart. The novel proper begins in Krakow in 2001, with a concert musician named Climent, who becomes fascinated by the violin of a fellow player, and wishes to know its origins: ‘When the lesson finished, Regina placed her violin in my hands. I tried it, and the strings responded to my every appeal. like pliant clay being molded in my hands’. Her uncle, Daniel, made it, she tells him, to ‘the same measurements as the Stradivarius’. Regina decides to give Climent photocopies of all of the material which she has collected about the Holocaust, in which the majority of her family were murdered.
Throughout, the third person narrative voice has been used to detail Daniel’s story. He has been imprisoned in Auschwitz concentration camp, tasked with building a wooden greenhouse, in which ‘Commander Sauckel, a refined but sadistic giant of a man, was determined to cultivate gladioli and camellias’. Whilst giving his profession as a cabinetmaker, Daniel is actually a luthier, a violin maker. When we first meet him, he is being harshly whipped for the crime of oversleeping. Anglada quickly build a picture of the horrific conditions which surround her protagonist, and continually reasserts his place within the camp: ‘No nightmare, he thought, could possibly be worse than the cruelty that surrounded them, pervaded them, as inescapable as the air they breathed’.
As soon as the camp command finds out about Daniel’s true profession, he is told that he has just one day to repair a violin, otherwise he will face grave consequences. This process of mending also helps to mend him, giving back the humanity which he had been stripped of upon arrival: ‘He was himself once again, not a number, not an object of taunting ridicule. He was Daniel, a luthier by profession. At that moment he thought of nothing other than the job at hand and the pride he took in it’. As one would expect, there is information here which deals with the making of violins, but it does often feel as though it has been rather overdone, and it overshadows other details of the plot. Some of the scenes which detail Daniel’s craft also tend to be a little long, or rather repetitive.
Anglada details how Daniel comes to rely on those around him in some ways: ‘His fellow inmates – lice-infested, like him, to a greater or lesser degree – provided a warm, familiar reassurance’. The details which have been written about so simply carry with them a haunting quality: ‘From the ceiling hung corpses and violins’. There is a flatness to the whole, though, and it is rather too distanced – the fault of the third person perspective, perhaps.
Catalan authors seem to do novellas well, but I must admit that I have a preference for Maria Barbal’s Peirene-published Stone in a Landslide, which I read a couple of months before The Auschwitz Violin. Whilst it deals with entirely different subject matter, the aforementioned seems to have had a tighter handle both over characters and scenes, and is not so abrupt in some places as The Auschwitz Violin tends to be. There may be a problem with the translation which takes some of the human element away, and there is a definite lack of emotion here; but nevertheless, the strong story in Anglada’s novella deserves to be read.