A couple of years ago, after reading Kings of the Earth and then Finn, I added Jon Clinch to my list of favorite novelists.
He joined an esteemed group that includes Ian McEwan, Wally Lamb and, proof of my reading diversity, Christopher Moore.
Even though he’s one of my favorites I still experienced some trepidation before starting Clinch’s latest book, The Thief of Auschwitz, because I don’t do well with holocaust stories, or any tale of extreme human suffering.
Just a few months ago I had to abandon The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian, unable to bear the atrocities of the Armenian genocide.
So I was nervous, but decided to trust the author. I’m glad I did.
The Thief of Auschwitz is the story of the Rosen family. Jacob, father and barber; Eidel, mother and artist; and their children, fourteen year old Max and young Lydia.
Of course, it’s also the story of Auschwitz.
While extremely moving, there are two things that keep this book from being utterly, devastatingly heartbreaking and thus undreadable for overly sensitive readers like me.
First, the scenes from the death camp are interspersed with first person narratives written by Max as an old man, an artist himself preparing for a retrospective of his work to be held at the National Gallery. (The first chapter is one of these narratives, so this is not a spoiler.)
Knowing that at least Max survives offers a ray of hope though the horrors of Auschwitz. And those chapters provide a chance for the reader to catch his/her breath.
And then there is the language.
Lines like “…this ignorant slave brought in to raise up devils by means of the highest art” and “…he’s a crooked little gray man of indeterminate age and he’s dying of something, perhaps of everything, breathing now with a sad and heroic effort as if life is a physical thing that he’s chasing across a vast empty space” caused me to re-read, often aloud, in wonder at the stark contrast between their beauty and the cruelty they describe.
Knowing Max was safe and the poetic language didn’t stop me from crying, though.
It’s the little things that always get me in Clinch’s books. In Kings of the Earth, I sobbed when an elderly man being questioned by the police about a murder was more worried about what his brother would eat for dinner if he didn’t get home.
This time it was the fate of a prisoner named Wasserman, an unassuming man with boots held together with bits of wire and a mouthful of bread hidden in his pocket, that brought me to tears.
I was also extremely touched by the story of Gretel, a pale young woman who risks her life to record the truths of the camp and bury them to be discovered by a later generation.
While The Thief of Auschwitz failed to unseat Kings of the Earth as my favorite Jon Clinch novel, it was grim yet elegant, dire yet hopeful and truly inspired. I highly recommend it.