Chasing the King of Hearts

Chasing the King of Hearts by Hannah Krall, tr. Philip Boehm (Peirene, 2013)Chasing the King of Hearts by Hannah Krall and translated by Philip Boehm is the latest in Peirene’s Turning Point series and described as a “remarkable true story of love and survival”. It is the story of Izolda, a Polish Jewish woman, and her determination to save her husband, Shayek, who has been imprisoned by the Nazis.

Hannah Krall is an award winning Polish author and journalist who herself survived the Second World War in hiding, while Philip Boehm is a renowned author, translator and playwright. His description of the art of translation on the publisher’s website is very evocative:

“I am continually struck by new overlaps between staging drama and translating prose. In both cases I first listen to the original voice or voices before attempting any re-creation, and my experience working with actors has taught me the importance of keeping a text alive, and of preserving its energy as it travels from one culture to another, whether on the page or in the theater. It is this fundamental awe of language that steers me from one project to the next.”

It seems to me that this combination of a true story (although somehow I hadn’t picked up on that fact, despite it being right there on the back of the book!), an author with first-hand experience of her subject and the theatrical approach to its translation makes for a truly amazing book.

Izolda is a born survivor. Despite her wealthy background she comes through torture, loss and betrayal with a gritty determination. Perhaps it is her single-minded dedication to chasing the King of Hearts (Shayek) across Europe, that gives her the fire she needs. She dyes her hair, changes her name, disguises her religion. When she is given a medallion of Our Lady, she starts to pray to the Virgin for protection and guidance, yet saying the Hail Mary with unaccustomed reverence is almost her downfall. Who knew that there was a Jewish way of saying it? She passes through the most notorious prisons and camps of the times, bartering her way, submitting to degredations, yet always surviving.

Being a Peirene book, this is short but it packs a hefty punch. Izolda’s slightly detached voice as she talks about her experiences is all the more devastating for leaving so much unsaid. There is a lot for the readers to work out for themselves and horrors are generally hinted at, rather than spelled out. It is a very different approach to Holocaust literature from that of Trieste, for example, but equally effective. In many ways, as a tale of survival, it is more uplifting, but there is always doubt. There is a catalogue of “if I hadn’t”s. There are doubts about people she could have saved if she hadn’t been so concerned for her husband. There are doubts about whether it was really all worth it. Meanwhile the ending is poignant, almost bleak, with Izolda sitting with her family in Israel at a dinner held in her honour, but unable to follow the conversation as it is held mostly in Hebrew – a language she doesn’t understand. The device of transcribing these conversations in Hebrew is very effective as most readers will find the written Hebrew as alienating as Izolda does the spoken conversation.

English: Image of a section of a Hebrew blessi...

English: Image of a section of a Hebrew blessing given before the reading of the Torah, and corresponding to the audio cantillation example provided at Cantillation_Example_Aliyah_Reform.ogg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I felt as I was reading it that this was the book I’d been looking for throughout my reading for Summer Reads – a voice that spoke to me and I book I loved. Highly recommended!

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About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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One Response to Chasing the King of Hearts

  1. Pingback: Four tales of war | Follow the Thread

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