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Book Nook - 06-02-2017

Monday, February 06, 2017
By Deepa Gahlot

There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to [email protected]

Bond Of Tragedy
The German Girl, Armando Lucas Correa’s debut novel (translated from Spanish by Nick Caistor) is based on a true story. It is set during World War II, but is particularly relevant in the Trump era that advocates hatred of the ‘other.’

In 1939, the German ship St. Louis sailed from Hamburg for Havana carrying more than 900 passengers, most of them German Jewish refugees, escaping from the Nazi regime. In spite of buying the right papers for a fortune and being forced to buy exorbitantly priced return tickets, the refugees were refused permission to disembark in Cuba. Their ship sailed from on country to another, being refused asylum everywhere. Finally some countries took in some Jews but in the whole traumatic process, people died, some committed suicide, families were destroyed and lives marked with tragedy forever.

Correa’s novel is divided into the stories of 12-year-old Hannah Rosenthal who was on that ill-fated ship and eleven-year-old Anna Rosen in present-day New York, whose life was shattered when her father was killed in 9/11 incident. The two are connected—Anna’s father was Hannah’s nephew, though both did not know of each other’s existence for many years, because Anna was born after her father’s death.

Hannah belonged to a wealthy and influential family in Berlin, but this did not save them from Nazi brutality.  She and her best friend Leo stick together, because their schoolmates and neighbor consider the Jews ‘impure.’  Hannah and Leo watch with shock and horror as the Ogres (Nazis) systematically isolate and persecute the Jews. The horrors of the Holocaust could not even been imagined then.

The Rosenthals have to leave their home and belongings behind and board the St. Louis. The few days they spend there turn out to be the happiest of their lives, with the ship’s kindly captain Gustav Schroeder promising to protect them. Hannah and her mother Alma manage to disembark in Cuba, but her father and Leo have to stay on the ship, hoping to get asylum in some sympathetic country, but the power of Nazi propaganda was such that nobody wanted the Jews on their soil—even though they were highly educated, sophisticated and civilized people.

For want of an option Alma has to make Havana her home with Hannah and her newly born son Gustavo, but she cannot bring herself to assimilate into the society. As a result Hannah also remains detached and missing Leo deeply, even though she does fall in love with a fellow student from the university. On the other hand Gustavo considers himself Cuba and gets involved in the political upheaval that sets Cuba on fire.

Seventy years later, Hannah’s grandniece, Anna, still grieving the death of her father Louis, years later, receives a package from Cuba. It has faded photos and a glimpse of the family’s history. With the hope of getting to know Louis better, Anna and her mother (who had taken to her bed after her husband’s death) decide to go to Havana to meet Hannah.

The book tries to fit in too much and link tragedies in three countries and different time zones; as a result does not do any justice to the social turmoil in Cuba and even less to the  aftermath of 9/11 in New York. The sections set in Berlin and on board the St. Louis are the most detailed, and the most emotionally affecting too.

Correa’s note at the end of the book, giving the facts of what happened with the passengers on the St. Louis, followed by actual photographs and signatures of the real passenger on board is jolting. Predictably, the shameful role of Cuba in repudiating the refugees, was sought to be wiped out by the disappearance of the files concerning the episode.

The German Girl
By:  Armando Lucas Correa
(Translated by Nick Caistor)
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Pages: 384

Excerpt of The German Girl
I was almost twelve years old when I decided to kill my parents.

I had made up my mind. I’d go to bed and wait until they fell asleep. That was always easy to tell because Papa would lock the big, heavy double windows and close the thick greenish-bronze curtains. He’d repeat the same things he said every night after supper, which in those days had become little more than a steaming bowl of tasteless soup.

“There’s nothing to be done. It’s all over. We have to leave.”

Then Mama would start shouting, her voice cracking as she blamed him. She’d pace the whole apartment—her fortress at the heart of a sinking city; the only space she’d known for more than four months—until she wore herself out. Then she’d embrace Papa, and her feeble moans would finally cease.

I’d wait a couple of hours. They wouldn’t put up any resistance. I knew Papa had already given up and was willing to go. Mama would be more difficult, but she took so many sleeping pills, she’d be fast asleep, steeped in her jasmine and geranium essences. Although she had gradually increased the dose, she still awakened during the night crying. I would rush to see what had happened, but all I could make out through the half-open door was Mama inconsolable in Papa’s arms, like a little girl recovering from a terrible nightmare. Except that, for her, the nightmare was being awake.

Nobody heard my cries anymore; nobody bothered about them. Papa told me I was strong. I would survive whatever happened. But not Mama. The pain was gnawing away at her. She was the child in a house where daylight was no longer allowed. For four months, she had been sobbing each night, ever since the city was covered in broken glass and filled with the constant stench of gunpowder, metal, and smoke. That was when they started planning our escape. They decided we’d abandon the house where I was born, and forbade me to go to school, where nobody liked me anymore. Then Papa gave me my second camera.
“So that you can leave a trail out of the labyrinth like Ariadne,” he whispered.

I dared to think it would be best to be rid of them.

I thought about diluting aspirin in Papa’s food or stealing Mama’s sleeping pills—she wouldn’t last a week without them. The only problem was, first of all, my doubts. How many aspirin would he have to swallow to give him a lethal ulcer, internal bleeding? How long could Mama really survive without sleep? Anything bloody was out of the question, because I couldn’t bear the sight of blood. So the best thing would be for them to die of suffocation. To smother them with a huge feather pillow. Mama made it clear that her dream had always been for death to take her by surprise while she slept. “I can’t bear farewells,” she would say, staring straight at me—or, if I wasn’t listening, she would grab me by the arm and squeeze it with the little strength she had left.

One night I woke up during the night in tears, thinking my crime had already been committed. I could see my parents’ lifeless bodies but was unable to shed a single tear. I felt free. Now there would be no one to force me to move to a filthy neighborhood, to leave behind my books, my photographs, my cameras, to live with the terror of being poisoned by your own father and mother.

I started to tremble. I called out “Papa!” But no one came to my rescue. “Mama!” There was no going back. What had I turned into? How did I end up so low? What would I do with their bodies? How long would it take for them to decompose?

Everyone would think it was suicide. No one would question it. My parents had been suffering constantly for four months by then. Others would see me as an orphan; I’d see myself as a murderer. My crime existed in the dictionary. I looked it up. What a dreadful word. Just saying it gave me the shivers. Parricide. I tried to repeat it and couldn’t. I was a murderer.

It was so easy to identify my crime, my guilt, my agony. What about my parents, who were planning to get rid of me? What was the name for someone who killed their children? Was that such a terrible crime there wasn’t even a word for it in the dictionary? That meant they could get away with it. Whereas I had to bear the weight of death and a nauseating word. You could kill your parents, your brothers and sisters. But not your children.

I prowled through the rooms, which to me seemed increasingly small and dark, in a house that would soon no longer be ours. I looked up at the unreachable ceiling, walked down hallways lined with the images of a family that was disappearing little by little. Light from the lamp with the snowy-white shade in Papa’s library filtered out into the corridor where I stood disoriented, unable to move. I watched as my pale hands turned golden.

I opened my eyes and was in the same bedroom, surrounded by well-worn books and dolls I had never played with, nor ever would. I closed my eyes and sensed it wouldn’t be long before we fled without a set destination on a huge ocean liner from a port in this country where we had never belonged.

In the end, I didn’t kill my parents. I didn’t have to. Papa and Mama were the guilty ones. They forced me to throw myself into the abyss alongside them.

The success of Dangal has whetted curiosity about the Phogat family, so Saurabh Duggal’s book has come out at the right time. The synopsis states, “In 2000, after the Olympic Games closed with much fanfare in Sydney, legendary wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat watched, dejected and heartbroken, as the prize reserved by his state government for winners of Olympic medals in wrestling were left unclaimed. Determined to never see this instance repeated, Phogat decided to do the unthinkable. Much to his neighbours’ curiosity he spent two days digging a pit in his courtyard and asked his young daughters and nieces to join him there at the break of dawn one day. Little did they know that this unusual command from him would change their lives forever. Yet, each of their wins in the ring, every ambition he had for them, came at great personal cost. In the small village of Balali in Haryana, a state infamous for its practice of female foeticide and low literacy rates, Phogat had to battle not just deep social stigma and an apathetic government, but also a disapproving family and personal tragedy to train the girls in his sport. Due to his efforts, the girls have all gone on to win medals and acclaim at the national and international levels, including at the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games.  Akhada tells the remarkable story of a man of tremendous fortitude, of a father who fought against all odds to give his daughters a future they could not have dreamed for themselves.”

Akhada: The Authorised Biography of Mahavir Singh Phogat
By: Saurabh Duggal
Publisher: Hachette
Pages: 232

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