Non-Fiction, Reviews

No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise Frenkel (1945), trans. Stephanie Smee

42935638

image via goodreads.com

I came across Bookish Beck’s review of No Place to Lay One’s Head last month and knew I just had to read it. It is the memoir of Françoise Frenkel, a Jewish woman from Poland who opened the first French-language bookshop in Berlin, in 1921. She had studied in France, and when on a visit to Berlin, she realises that French books and newspapers are not available, she is convinced of the need for a French bookshop in the city. Frenkel was wedded to a career as a bookseller, and it is wonderful to read to about her passion for it and her obvious joy at being able to run a successful bookshop and have regular customers.

“However, starting in 1935, serious complications set in.”

As the National Socialist party gains power in Germany, gradually more and more restrictions are placed on Frenkel and her bookshop. Initially the problems arise from her selling French literature – she has to deal with new customs regulations, certain French authors being blacklisted, and eventually a ban on all French newspapers. She starts to receive Nazi propaganda in the post, as well as invitations to meetings and rallies – and attached to these are questionnaires relating to her race, and that of her grandparents and great-grandparents. She is even arrested and interviewed by the Gestapo about taking a trip to see friends in Belgium, but is mercifully set free on the same day.

Frenkel tells her story quite swiftly, and very soon we are told about the night of 10th November 1938, a night now referred to as Kristallnacht. She is awoken by the sound of a water pump, and goes out into the street to see firefighters trying to deal with several shops that are burning, and eventually the synagogue as well. Some men approach her bookshop as she stands outside it, but turn away when they realise it’s not on their list. The next day she does not open the shop, and decides to wind up the business and leave Germany. There is a poignant scene in which she walks around her shop, touching all the books and wondering if she will ever be able to return to them.

In July 1939 Frenkel makes her way to Paris, and leaves in Spring 1940 for the south of France – just days before the city is bombed by the Germans. She makes several fortuitous moves like this throughout the book, narrowly avoiding death or capture. In the south she lives in Avignon and Vichy, before settling for a time in Nice. She writes wonderfully about her faith in the French people, and her fears for the country as it is occupied by the Germans and the Vichy government comes increasingly under their influence.

One day in August 1942, she is coming back to the hotel where she lives when she sees one of her neighbours gesturing to her from the window. He points to a side street, and when she looks down it she sees people being herded onto buses. She asks someone what is happening and they tell her that “They’re picking up Jews.” She has observed the growing restrictions on Jewish people and has heard about concentration camps – ones in France that are more like holding camps, and the ones in the east. She looks around her for options and for a moment is tempted to run towards the crowd and get on one of the buses:

“A feeling of intense joy overwhelmed me at the thought of such solidarity, such sacrifice. But cold logic took over.

Who would benefit from such a sacrifice? What could it change? What good would come of it?

The instinct of self-preservation had won out.

The bitterness of this truth weighs on me still, and will to the end of my days.”

Eventually she realises she must go somewhere, and runs over to a hairdressers owned by her friends the Mariuses. They instantly understand her plight and agree to shelter her in their apartment, as it soon becomes clear that she cannot return to the hotel. From this point on, she is in hiding. 

I included the above passage as it is one of the few moments in the book where Frenkel really identifies herself with other Jewish people in the larger context, or expresses her sorrow for those that were arrested and deported. Most of the time she explains the restrictions placed on Jewish people, and their difficulty with the authorities, as if she were not one of them. Only now and again does she say ‘this happened to me too’, and always after she has outlined the wider situation. I wonder if this detachment is like a coping mechanism, a way to distance herself from the horror she sees around her, however mundane – and even though she’s telling the story in retrospect. Her storytelling moves along quite swiftly, as I mentioned, and she is very matter of fact. At certain points she expresses her sadness, horror, or fear, but always in a simple and plain manner. She does not dwell on her emotions for too long and does not get swept up in the drama of the situations and experiences. The above passage is a rare deviation from this.

The middle of the book, when Frenkel is in hiding and has to move several times, reminded me of Gone to Ground by Marie Jalowicz Simon, which details her life in hiding during the war, mostly in Berlin (and which I reviewed here along with A Woman in Berlin). Frenkel is incredibly lucky that the Mariuses are able to help her find places to stay, sometimes paying rent for her or sending supplies of food and clothes. It is clear that without them her situation would have been a lot worse. It soon becomes apparent that she cannot stay in France, and must try to get over to Switzerland.

Frenkel’s first attempt at getting over the border to Switzerland ends in her being arrested, and she spends several months in prison in Annecy before being acquitted. Again she is unbelievably lucky to have friends to help her, this time in Switzerland. They are able to send her a visa, which undoubtedly helps her case. She also has a very sympathetic lawyer who helps her greatly. It is clear that other Jewish people in the same situation are not so lucky, and some are deported to the east. Once released from prison she goes back into hiding, staying for a while in a convent, before trying again in June 1943 to cross the border. She is advised where might be a good place to get across, and that certain gates are unlocked and unguarded during the day. This time, in a panic, she makes it to Switzerland. Even though you know from the start that Frenkel survives the war, the tension is undeniable and you are almost as relieved as she is when she finally makes it over the border.

No Place to Lay One’s Head is a unique and fascinating book. We know very little about Frenkel’s life outside of what she includes in her memoir, and this is explored in Patrick Modiano’s preface. Aside from the intriguing fact that not once in the book does Frenkel mention her husband Simon Raichenstein (with whom she opened the bookshop in Berlin), Modiano points out that perhaps it doesn’t matter that we know so little about Frenkel outside of the book, especially her life after the war.

I did think about the absence of her husband from the story though. He left Berlin for Paris in 1933, and was still there when Frenkel arrived, though of course it’s unclear if they saw each other. Unlike Frenkel, Raichenstein stayed in Paris and was rounded up in July 1942; he died a month later in Auschwitz-Birkenau. It’s impossible to know, but given that Frenkel wrote and published her memoir just after the war, it may simply have been too painful for her to include him in the book.

As with A Woman in Berlin, all that matters is the story that that the writer chooses to tell.

*

First published in 1945 by Verlag Jehebe (Geneva, Switzerland). Published in France in 2015 by Editions Gallimard, in Australia (for the first time in English) in 2017 by Vintage, and in the UK by Pushkin Press in 2018. I read the Pushkin Press paperback edition, pictured above.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

Advertisements
Standard
Fiction, Reviews

Song for an Approaching Storm by Peter Froberg Idling

Pushkin Press 2014 cover (UK). Image: goodreads.com

Pushkin Press 2014 cover (image: goodreads.com)

Before reading this book I knew barely anything of the 20th century history of Cambodia. Song for an Approaching Storm attracted me with its cover but also because it ticked several boxes for my current reading tastes as it was by an author I had never read before, was translated, and was about a section of history of which I had very little knowledge.

Song for an Approaching Storm is set during about a month in the middle of 1955. The book is divided into three sections, each following one character. First we see things from the perspective of political dissident Saloth Sar; then we follow politician Sam Sary; and finally we dip into the life of Somaly, the beautiful young Miss Cambodia who happens to be engaged to Sar whilst having an affair with Sary.

This is one of those books it takes a few pages to get into. The first section, following Sar, is written entirely in the second person, something I had actually not come across in I think any book I have ever read. It’s a little surreal at first and as the reader you feel disorientated and as if you should know more about what is going on that you do. But after twenty or so pages you get into the rhythm and things start to flow a bit better. The other two sections are written in the third person though, making me wonder why the author chose the second person for his section following Sar.

1955 was the year that Cambodia held its first democratic elections. Song for an Approaching Storm takes place in the month leading up to the elections, with tension and paranoia at a height. Sar is an official member of the Democratic party, working to secure their victory; but he is also, secretly, a member of ‘the Organisation’, an armed Communist faction that plans to overthrow the government. The book opens with him attending a clandestine meeting with fellow comrades (though it is clear from the outset he knows he cannot really trust anybody), and we quickly see that he has dedicated his life to ‘the cause’.

At this point in history Saloth Sar was very much under the radar. But even then he felt intensely paranoid about the secrecy and survival of the Organisation. This paranoia, and desire for both power and success, are traits that typified his later identity as Pol Pot. Purely within the context of this novel he is a passionate but insecure man who wants what he believes to be the best for his country. It is difficult – but not impossible – to see his transformation (if you can call it that) from this into the man we know as Pol Pot. A man who caused the deaths of millions of his own people (as well an many foreigners) for what he believed to be the greater good. I knew that he was a reviled leader, responsible for such horrors, but I am glad that I read about the facts of what happened after I read this novel. Though we all know that Sar is Pol Pot, I think it helps to see him here just as he was in 1955. We can then consider how his life at this point affected his later actions.

All three characters are fascinating and have very disparate perspectives of the same situation, which helps to create a very vivid and ‘three-dimensional’ world for the reader. The atmosphere throughout is tense and murky with the heat and the politics – both equally intense – adding an extra element of strain. I was thoroughly impressed by both the writing and the construction of this novel. It tells a relatively simple story (especially as the action happens within such a short period of time) but Froberg Idling uses his structure and the nuances of language to delve deeper and bring out the multitudes of human issues that exist within every scene.

Somaly is based on a real person, Soeung Son Maly, who had a relationship with Saloth Sar as well as Sam Sary. Little is known about the real Somaly (Google links to sites related to Sary) and the fictional version of her here is beautifully drawn. Crowned Miss Cambodia and with dreams of becoming a model, she hopes her relationships with the politicians will help boost her social status. She lives with her mother and a disgruntled maid, wishing for more freedom and idly flicking through magazines. She intrigued me and made me wonder what life was really like for her and her female counterparts.

Song for an Approaching Storm is a very dense novel, full of so many things to think about – that’s part of why it’s taken me so long to write this review! I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in history and/Cambodia, or those like me who knew nothing about the situation.

*

Originally published in Sweden in 2012 by Natur & Kultur, and in the UK in March 2014 by Pushkin Press. My copy was kindly provided by Pushkin Press for review.

Standard