A WHILE ago, I read these words by Neil Gaiman about the importance of fiction:
Ideas — written ideas — are special. They are the way we transmit our stories and our thoughts from one generation to the next. If we lose them, we lose our shared history. We lose much of what makes us human. And fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gift of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things.
Gaiman articulates an important reason for my reading obsession. A good book is an invitation to enter a fellow human being's world: it allows us to look through another person's eyes and enables empathy for otherwise unreachable lives. All world history is shared history. The intensity of events and the proximity to one's own life experience varies, but whether we are talking about apartheid, the Vietnam War, Tiananmen Square, slavery, the suffragettes or the moon landing, everything that happens on our planet is shared history. Stories help us experience and preserve that shared history, and may even facilitate understanding.
The decades since World War 2 have produced many books trying to make sense of those brutal years. The systematic killing in the Holocaust remains a topic that writers repeatedly return to. For a notable period after 1945, factually correct retellings of the war and the circumstances of the Holocaust were required. In later years, writers began to have more freedom to tell fictional stories set within the factual framework of the wartime era. Some of these are the strongest, most disturbing, heart-destroying books that have crossed my life path. WG Sebald's Austerlitz and Adam Resurrected by Yoram Kaniuk are grandiose examples. In The Zone of Interest, writing through the eyes of Germans involved in the day-to-day “business" of genocide, Martin Amis tells a story so terrible that I was often unable to read on. The Pianist (a 1946 book by Władysław Szpilman, adapted into film by Roman Polanski in 2002) also stands out — the book and film are dedicated to conveying the horror and cruelty of the time.
Counting Lost Stars by Kim van Alkemade is also set in the context of World War 2, the Holocaust and the decades that followed. It revolves around two narratives. Rita Klein gave up her unplanned, illegitimate baby for adoption in 1960. She soon began working in New York for a company specialising in the evolving field of computer programming. She met Jacob Nassy, a Jew who survived Auschwitz but lost his family; he has no information about their fate.
The second narrative begins in The Hague in 1941. Cornelia Vogel works part-time for her father, who holds a senior post in the ministry of information. Superficially, they are working on census of the Dutch population using the Hollerith machine, which captured and processed data by reading holes in paper cards. Cornelia soon finds out what she is actually up to: the purpose of the census is to identify all Jews. Soon after, forced relocation to death camps begins. She is a cog in the Nazis' killing machine.
Rita Klein falls in love with Jacob and decides to help him find out what became of his family. Cornelia Vogel also loses her heart, to the young Jewish woman who lives in the apartment next door. She decides to do everything in her power to save her lover's life.
The presence of the Hollerith machine in both contexts ties the narrative together. The murder of six million people was mediated by excellently functioning bureaucracy: the killing machine had to remain well greased and finely tuned. Someone had to enter the code for “Jew" into the Hollerith machine; someone had to process the results and send them to the security police. What happens next… well, how much responsibility can be laid at the door of the bureaucrat, the one who merely does her job? Is the bored woman punching holes in a card as guilty as Hitler and Eichmann? Is she less guilty than the one who opens the gas tap? This is Hannah Arendt's “banality of evil" — it happens when ordinary people continue to do their ordinary work without taking responsibility for the consequences. Doing evil, being evil — not the same thing… right?
Van Alkemade adds a clever twist to this story: Cornelia Vogel ends up in a concentration camp, preserving thousands of Hollerith cards. When Rita Klein starts looking for information about Jacob's family, she turns to these records. Cornelia was forced to keep punching cards and came close to death, but 15 years after the end of the war, the bureaucracy can be overthrown.
This book does not belong in the same category as Sebald or Kaniuk. It's well-researched and a comfortable read, but Van Alkemade doesn't delve deeply into the trauma experienced by the characters as a result of the war. She shies away from it to some extent. Cornelia's experience in the concentration camp, for example, is told rather than shown. While using first- and third-person narrative in the rest of the book, the author switches to almost clinical documentation for this part of the story.
The storyline is focused more on the two main characters' romantic plots than on the realities of war. The shared history of World War 2 and the Holocaust provides the framework for what eventually becomes a beautiful story about hope and love. The trauma of war is present, but there is too little complexity for the book to fulfil the role Gaiman refers to: fiction that enables empathy.
Who, what, where and how much?
Counting Lost Stars by Kim van Alkemade was published by HarperCollins and costs R370 at Exclusive Books.
♦ VWB ♦
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