Book Review: The Auschwitz Violin

By Paula Green

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The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Angels Anglada
Text Publishing $23

Anglada's The Auschwitz Violin produces poetry in a monstrous setting. Photo / Supplied
Anglada's The Auschwitz Violin produces poetry in a monstrous setting. Photo / Supplied

Maria Angels Anglada originally published The Auschwitz Violin in 1994 in Spanish, but it has only recently appeared in an English translation. Anglada, whose life spanned from 1930 to 1999, was a significant Catalan writer of the 20th century.

Now translated by Martha Tennent, this slim novel opens with the sound of a violin in concert. The exquisite tones capture the attention of a fellow musician. He can't pick the origins of the instrument, and for the woman to tell him, she must recount a greater story.

The Auschwitz Violin features an extraordinary moment in the life of Daniel, a Jewish violin-maker imprisoned at Auschwitz. Initially employed as a cabinetmaker in the morning and labourer in the afternoon, Daniel becomes the subject of a cruel bet.
He must fashion a violin that matches the world's best. If he succeeds the Kommandant wins a case of French wine and if he fails he becomes the property of the camp's torturer.

What this book does is take you deep inside the human being. It is as though the outer world has shed all its skins and Daniel draws upon every ounce of determination and courage to survive - to make the violin, piece by painstaking piece. Nothing else matters.

We are shown what the mind does in order to help the frail and battered body keep going.

Doing something diverts the mind. Creating something beautiful diverts the mind to such a degree it takes the edge off hunger.

Yet food, and the lack of it, is a poignant thread for the reader. Daniel is fed watery soup and diluted bitter coffee but must continue to labour and toil and avoid the terrible punishments handed out on a whim.

Daniel retrieves food from his memory banks, in an almost hallucinatory manner.

Food, from this source, is a pathway to the warm and comfortable past life, the nurturing relations that surrounded him as both child and young man.

The tenderly crafted violin, brought to life with the craftsman's loving strokes, is in direct opposition to Daniel's ill-treated frame. Poignant details stand out - the way the wind is like a gentle hand upon the prisoner's cheek.

Anglada intensifies the monstrous setting by including authentic documents at the start of each chapter. There is the report of a guard who shot a woman because she reached through the fence to steal a turnip from a cart. There is the list of requisitioned items that included clothes and a wagon of hair.

The book is simple in rendition, the sentences sometimes clunky in translation yet there is poetry at work. The two key players, Daniel and the violin, tug at your heart but leave room for a more intellectual engagement.

Stories of the war and the Holocaust continue to haunt those who live on in the shadows and the legacies of those who lived through it. Fictionalised versions, such as Anglada's, are a way to mourn these abominable moments in history. I don't see this as ever being redundant.

Paula Green is an Auckland poet and children's author.

- NZ Herald

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