Sunday, 9 October 2011

Booker Longlist: Far to Go

Alison Pick's novel Far to Go is a moving and powerful account of the provisionality of all the stories we tell ourselves about history and identity. Piecing together the fragmentary evidence that surfaces, years later, of the story of a Czech Jewish family in the lead up to the German Occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939, she weaves a narrative that is both convincing and insistent that it is only one possible version of events. There is, for example, the unknown sibling, whose marginal story is only alluded to, and then unpicked. The fragments that persist are: a watch; a photograph; some lost letters; historical documents and that most conditional of evidences: memory. Holocaust novels tread a difficult line, in that it is hard to see what they can say that doesn't simply collapse into a condemnation of Nazi Germany. Pick though, offers us something else. Her narrative is unflinching, not only in its depiction of the way in which greed and insecurity made special spaces for Nazi ideology to flourish even in closely-knit communities, but also for the way in which ordinary people make mistakes out of hope, love, fear and desperation.
The story is in part narrated by Annaliese, a contemporary Holocaust researcher who has dedicated her life to uncovering the stories of the kindertransport children. She constructs the story of the Bauer family, a Sudeten-Czech secular Jewish family who send their little boy Pepik on the kindertransport to Scotland. Her story is an imaginative elaboration of their lives, motivations and compromises. The psychological faithfulness is both devastating and curiously enlarging. While in essence, we learn nothing new about the Holocaust, we do feel we know what we know in a newly truthful way. Surely, that is the one of the great purposes and pleasures of reading?

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