Several years ago, before I became a father, I re-read Voltaire’s Candide. It had washed over me when I first read it years before as a much younger man, but this time I found it brilliant, a farcical tour through the history of human suffering that seemed to offer some solace despite its assurances that there was none. Of course, it’s easy to take an enlightened view of the inevitability of suffering and laugh off the darker pages of human history when you’re largely insulated from them. Though I remain convinced that Candide is deserving of its firmly entrenched canonical status, I’m not sure that I would have the same reaction to it now, just a few short years later, and a lot of that has to do with the little guy I’m typing this as quietly as possible to avoid waking. The responsibility of becoming a parent comes with a stiff side-dose of worry, night terrors about all the terrible things in the world that suddenly don’t seem so far away when you become the steward of a tiny, helpless human being. To use the parlance of our time, shit gets real. Fast.
Perhaps, then, it’s only natural that atrocity has been on my mind lately. It’s seemingly everywhere we turn. The horrific civil war in Syria. The deteriorating situation in post-war Iraq, complete with soundbite-ready beheadings and the violent massacre of religious and ethnic minorities. The abduction of hundreds of Nigerian school girls by fundamentalist psychopaths. The humanitarian crisis on the Mexican border sending thousands of refugee children pouring into the country, overtaxing an already burdened immigration system. The police murder of an unarmed black teenager and the subsequent protests in Ferguson, which gave way to looting and rioting that only seem in the eyes of many to justify the brutality of what has become a de facto police state. It all seems so hopeless. And so predictable.
Of course, all of this horror is nothing new, but the fact that it’s just the latest flames of a fire that’s been raging since the dawn of human history hardly offers any consolation. Here in the 21st century, ripe with horrors of its own, we’re still trying to process that gold standard of human evil, the Holocaust, seventy-five years after the fact. Czech author Magdelena Platzova’s novel Aaron’s Leap attempts to do just that, taking a look at the Holocaust both through the eyes of one its victims and those dealing with its legacy two generations later.
Aaron’s Leap takes what sometimes seems like a glancing blow at the horrors of the Holocaust, beginning with a frame story of an Israeli film crew making a documentary about Berta Aultmann, a Bauhaus School artist (based on the real-life story of artist Freidl Dicker-Brandeis) who dies at Auschwitz. Milena, a young woman hired to work on the film crew, has a connection to Berta; her grandmother, Krystyna, was a close friend of Berta’s and a fellow artist. Berta’s story, as well as that of the film crew and others trying to make sense of her life and the tragedy that consumed it, is told from several points of view, including Krystyna’s, Milena’s, and that of Berta herself. The novel, Platzova’s first to be translated into English, concerns itself with a lot of big ideas. It opens with Krystyna poring over a chest of letters from her past and deciding to destroy some of them, setting the tone for a story that explores the subjectivity of the past. It also explores the artistic and political ideals (and, more interestingly, the personalities) that shaped the Bauhaus school, the horrors of the Holocaust itself, and the way the legacy of such atrocity has filtered down through the generations and still affects us today.
Platzova proves adept at exploring all these facets of her story, but the one that hit home most with me was one that’s been on my mind of late: the role of art in the face of unspeakable horror. The atrocities we witness in life, either first-hand or by proxy in the news, so saturated with evil that human misery is beginning to seem mundane, have a way of making everything else, the books, films, and art we turn to in order to make sense of our lives, somehow pointless and frivolous. That can be a hard pill to swallow for someone like me, who’s devoted large chunks of his life to writing, often about subjects that pale in comparison to the horrible things that happen on this planet of ours with alarming regularity. This is something that concerns Berta throughout the novel. She questions the tenets of the Bauhaus school and the idea that art and design have any real importance at all, noting that “a different shape of lamp” hardly manifests itself in “less inclination toward violence.” The novel reaches its apex of exploring this theme when Berta ends up teaching art to children in the Nazi prison camps.
Aaron’s Leap sometimes suffers a little from the kind of disjointedness that often comes from juggling too many points of view, but overall it’s an impressive novel that manages to deliver on big ideas without sacrificing the human element. It also serves to affirm that art and other such frivolities do have some worth, even in midst of a world that seems poised to break under the weight of its own suffering. For that, I am thankful.