Saturday, November 6, 2010

Review: Heidegger's Glasses by Thaisa Frank ★★★★

Heidegger's GlassesI really enjoy reading stories about the Holocaust and about the people who have lived through it. I suppose that in a way, it helps me to gain perspective in my own life, and reminds me that there is goodness to be found in everything. The suffering of the Jewish people during WWII was immense, yet they continue to hope and live. That means something to me.

Heidegger's Glasses takes a different path, a surreal and philosophical and almost mystical one, and is a very different, but no less moving or beautiful story, because of it. We are told in the beginning that the leaders of the Reich were believers in the occult, and felt that winning the war hinged on answering letters to the dead. To do that, the Compound was formed underground, and multi-lingual Jews were placed there as Scribes to answer the dead's letters. When a letter comes in from a well-known person close to the Reich to a close friend who is currently in Auschwitz, the order comes down to answer the letter, even though the recipient is still alive -- the Final Solution must be kept secret, so the letter must not come from Auschwitz.

This throws a huge wrench in the lives of the Scribes, and the people assigned to run the Compound. Elie Schacten is close to the Reich, and has the ability to move freely throughout Germany as few do, and uses this freedom to help people as she can. Gerhardt Lodenstein the Oberst, is a good-hearted man who finds safety for the Compound in flying under the radar. Stumpf, the former-Oberst of the Compound is a believer in the occult and takes the letter writing to the dead very seriously, but is a it of a fool, and so tends to bungle everything he touches. The letter is written, delivered... and goes very badly wrong.

I think that what I enjoyed most about this book is that we get to see the war and the Reich from people inside it that hate it. They don't believe and they live in fear and uncertainty that they will be found out. The Compound is a mostly-safe haven for the Scribes under Lodenstein, and a temporary refuge for Jews in hiding, but after Heidegger's letter fiasco, you can cut the tension with a knife. They aren't sure if the Reich will come crashing down on their heads, or if they've forgotten, or if they don't care... there are a million ifs, but life must go on and there's very little that can be done either way. I felt like I was there, and was worried for this group of people who had lost nearly everything already.

I really enjoyed the writing in this book. It felt simple, almost surreal without quotation marks for the dialogue. The prose was straightforward, but contained some beautiful quotes that I wish I'd have marked. The sections were very short, for the most part, and separated by the letters that the Scribes were answering. These letters told the story of the "outside world" almost as well as any full book would have done, so that by the end, we can see the danger that the Scribes have managed to avoid, mostly, but they still have reason to fear. There were some funny sections in the book as well, which surprised me, since I didn't expect it at all in a novel about Nazi Germany. This helped the surreal feeling as well, but also provided the story with a kind of false-lightness above the seriousness and fear.

The ending was a little abrupt for me. The time shift and the unresolved whereabouts of one of the characters was a bit sudden and and disappointing. I'd hoped for this character to find what they were searching for and to find happiness, so the shift to an entirely new character jarred a little bit. But otherwise, I really enjoyed the story, and would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a WWII story scene through a different lens.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book for review from the publisher.

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