Kapo, by Aleksandar Tišma. a review by Livi Michael

Aleksandar Tišma. Kapo, New York Review Books, (2021) £11.99

The term ‘Kapo’, as David Rieff explains in his illuminating afterword to this novel, refers to a prisoner in the concentration camps who has been selected by the Nazis to work for them.

Lamian, the protagonist of this novel, has served as a kapo in Auschwitz. At the start of the novel he is living in the Bosnian town of Banja Luka, where he has a job as a superintendent in the railyard. The opening sentence sets out the premise of the plot: ‘He had found Helena Lifka.’

We begin, then, in media res. We are not initially told who ‘he’ is. The perspective remains close to Lamian’s own myopic view, intensifying the sense of claustrophobia that remains with us from this opening sentence. The verb ‘found’ has particular resonance, an ironic ambiguity pointing to a deeper paradox, because there is no sense at this point that Lamian has been looking for Helena Lifka, a prisoner he repeatedly raped in Auschwitz. As the narrative unfolds we see that Lamian has not ‘found’ Helena Lifka, rather, he is being haunted by her. The opening sentence represents a moment in which his past actions, always inescapable, have found him.

This paradox, or ambiguity, pervades the book; its language, structure and themes. And it is particularly expressed in the portrayal of Lamian. Lamian might be said, for instance, to have systematically denied his origins, divorcing himself from his parents, (who encourage this, because they love him, and want him to survive). But it might equally be said that he has been systematically cut off from his origins, and divorced from his parents. This is the apparently unresolvable conundrum of Lamian: is he victim or perpetrator?

As readers we are not invited to extend our sympathy to Lamian, to see him as victim, but neither do we see him as perpetrator in any simplistic sense.  Rather, the reader is presented with the recurring paradox. For instance, on p.262, we read:

In that darkness and stench they (the rapes) offered him the possibility of arousal and power, which was the only thing in the camp that could bring him exultation. The other power, the power of the club, though he obediently used it, could not make him exult, because he did not wield it with desire – because he had become Kapo Furfa by freezing beneath the coat of ice which Corporal Sommer had put on him, but beneath that ice, beneath the Kapo’s insignia and red triangle, he was really Lamian, a Jew with no yellow star sewn on him, whose heart quaked in fear and horror as he beat those to whom he secretly belonged.

The ‘coat of ice’ mentioned here refers to an incident in which, in the bitter winter of Auschwitz, Lamian has taken a sweater from a corpse to keep himself warm. As punishment, General Sommer orders him to stand still, for a full day, while icy water is poured over him and SS officers double up with laughter at the spectacle.

Are we meant to despise Lamian, or view him with an appalled sympathy?

Rieff points out that ‘Kapo may be the only major literary novel to have a perpetrator rather than a victim as its main character,’ but the exploration of the unresolvable perpetrator/victim conundrum gives the novel a haunting power, and Tišma manages to sustain the tension of this paradox to the (appropriately) bitter end.

Unlike Primo Levi, Tišma doesn’t find hope and glimpses of goodness in the camps. Nor is Kapo like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which ends in a kind of redemption. There appears to be no moral grey ground in Kapo, just a rigorous examination of the darkest terrain of the soul, (or, to quote Rieff again ‘hell’s 9th circle’).

Perhaps the closest comparison to Kapo, therefore, would be Marlowe’s Faust. On p.115, for instance, it is hard not to be reminded of Mephistopheles’ bleakly ironic statement, ‘why this is hell, nor am I out of it.’

He lit a cigarette and looked out at the fields, above which a pale, washed-out sun peeked from behind the clouds. Again he had the feeling that he was travelling as a prisoner, though without handcuffs and without the crush of other sweaty, frightened bodies…

Throughout the novel the prose moves fluently between past and present as we realise that, internally, Lamian has never left the camps. The evil of the camps travels with him, because of his participation in it. There is no attempt to rationalise or justify this evil, to explain the phenomenon of Nazism, perhaps because such evil cannot ultimately be explained. In Faust, of course, we are offered hell itself as the source of evil, in Kapo no such supernatural dimension is posited. What the two anti-heroes, Faust and Lamian, have in common, however, is a willingness to trade.

The style of Kapo is spare, the action is conveyed in factual statements with few complex clauses. Rieff refers to the ‘implacable harshness’ of Tišma’s writing, but there is also beauty in the lean prose, which is urgent enough to drive the novel from its opening sentence, when Lamian’s quest is launched, to its devastating conclusion. The forensic quality of the writing is consummately rendered in the translation by Richard Williams, which does full justice to the complexities that exist within the apparent simplicity and clarity of the style.

In his afterword, Rieff states ‘I know of no work in European literature so unrelenting in its despair.’ A striking claim, since ‘European fiction’ must include the works of Zola, Dostoevsky and Camus. Kapo is not, then, an easy read. We understand that there is no hope for Lamian, a man who is haunted by himself, and tortured by his past. The novel ends, as Rieff says ‘in a few terrifying sentences’ that aptly describe the utter desolation of his condition.

Aleksandar Tišma. Kapo, New York Review Books, (2021) £11.99

The term ‘Kapo’, as David Rieff explains in his illuminating afterword to this novel, refers to a prisoner in the concentration camps who has been selected by the Nazis to work for them.

Lamian, the protagonist of this novel, has served as a kapo in Auschwitz. At the start of the novel he is living in the Bosnian town of Banja Luka, where he has a job as a superintendent in the railyard. The opening sentence sets out the premise of the plot: ‘He had found Helena Lifka.’

We begin, then, in media res. We are not initially told who ‘he’ is. The perspective remains close to Lamian’s own myopic view, intensifying the sense of claustrophobia that remains with us from this opening sentence. The verb ‘found’ has particular resonance, an ironic ambiguity pointing to a deeper paradox, because there is no sense at this point that Lamian has been looking for Helena Lifka, a prisoner he repeatedly raped in Auschwitz. As the narrative unfolds we see that Lamian has not ‘found’ Helena Lifka, rather, he is being haunted by her. The opening sentence represents a moment in which his past actions, always inescapable, have found him.

This paradox, or ambiguity, pervades the book; its language, structure and themes. And it is particularly expressed in the portrayal of Lamian. Lamian might be said, for instance, to have systematically denied his origins, divorcing himself from his parents, (who encourage this, because they love him, and want him to survive). But it might equally be said that he has been systematically cut off from his origins, and divorced from his parents. This is the apparently unresolvable conundrum of Lamian: is he victim or perpetrator?

As readers we are not invited to extend our sympathy to Lamian, to see him as victim, but neither do we see him as perpetrator in any simplistic sense.  Rather, the reader is presented with the recurring paradox. For instance, on p.262, we read:

In that darkness and stench they (the rapes) offered him the possibility of arousal and power, which was the only thing in the camp that could bring him exultation. The other power, the power of the club, though he obediently used it, could not make him exult, because he did not wield it with desire – because he had become Kapo Furfa by freezing beneath the coat of ice which Corporal Sommer had put on him, but beneath that ice, beneath the Kapo’s insignia and red triangle, he was really Lamian, a Jew with no yellow star sewn on him, whose heart quaked in fear and horror as he beat those to whom he secretly belonged.

The ‘coat of ice’ mentioned here refers to an incident in which, in the bitter winter of Auschwitz, Lamian has taken a sweater from a corpse to keep himself warm. As punishment, General Sommer orders him to stand still, for a full day, while icy water is poured over him and SS officers double up with laughter at the spectacle.

Are we meant to despise Lamian, or view him with an appalled sympathy?

Rieff points out that ‘Kapo may be the only major literary novel to have a perpetrator rather than a victim as its main character,’ but the exploration of the unresolvable perpetrator/victim conundrum gives the novel a haunting power, and Tišma manages to sustain the tension of this paradox to the (appropriately) bitter end.

Unlike Primo Levi, Tišma doesn’t find hope and glimpses of goodness in the camps. Nor is Kapo like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which ends in a kind of redemption. There appears to be no moral grey ground in Kapo, just a rigorous examination of the darkest terrain of the soul, (or, to quote Rieff again ‘hell’s 9th circle’).

Perhaps the closest comparison to Kapo, therefore, would be Marlowe’s Faust. On p.115, for instance, it is hard not to be reminded of Mephistopheles’ bleakly ironic statement, ‘why this is hell, nor am I out of it.’

He lit a cigarette and looked out at the fields, above which a pale, washed-out sun peeked from behind the clouds. Again he had the feeling that he was travelling as a prisoner, though without handcuffs and without the crush of other sweaty, frightened bodies…

Throughout the novel the prose moves fluently between past and present as we realise that, internally, Lamian has never left the camps. The evil of the camps travels with him, because of his participation in it. There is no attempt to rationalise or justify this evil, to explain the phenomenon of Nazism, perhaps because such evil cannot ultimately be explained. In Faust, of course, we are offered hell itself as the source of evil, in Kapo no such supernatural dimension is posited. What the two anti-heroes, Faust and Lamian, have in common, however, is a willingness to trade.

The style of Kapo is spare, the action is conveyed in factual statements with few complex clauses. Rieff refers to the ‘implacable harshness’ of Tišma’s writing, but there is also beauty in the lean prose, which is urgent enough to drive the novel from its opening sentence, when Lamian’s quest is launched, to its devastating conclusion. The forensic quality of the writing is consummately rendered in the translation by Richard Williams, which does full justice to the complexities that exist within the apparent simplicity and clarity of the style.

In his afterword, Rieff states ‘I know of no work in European literature so unrelenting in its despair.’ A striking claim, since ‘European fiction’ must include the works of Zola, Dostoevsky and Camus. Kapo is not, then, an easy read. We understand that there is no hope for Lamian, a man who is haunted by himself, and tortured by his past. The novel ends, as Rieff says ‘in a few terrifying sentences’ that aptly describe the utter desolation of his condition.

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Livi Michael has published nineteen full-length works of fiction for adults, young adults and children, as well as a number of short stories in magazines including Granta. He has a PhD in Literature and leads the MA in Publishing Programme at Manchester Metropolitan University.

www.livimichael.co.uk

Livi Michael

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Published by darcie friesen hossack

Darcie Friesen Hossack is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers. Her short story collection, Mennonites Don’t Dance, was a runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Award, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading Evergreen Award for Adult Fiction. Citing irreverence, the book was banned by the LaCrete Public Library in Northern Alberta. Having mentored with Giller finalists Sandra Birdsell (The Russlander) and Gail Anderson Dargatz (Spawning Grounds, The Cure for Death by Lightening), Darcie is now completing her first novel where, for a family with a Seventh-day Adventist father and a Mennonite mother, the End Times are just around the corner. Darcie is also a four time judge of the Whistler Independent Book Awards, and a career food writer. She lives in Northern Alberta, Canada, with her husband, international award-winning chef, Dean Hossack.

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