his is not a conventional crime novel. There are victims, for sure, and perpetrators of terrible acts which still, when described, take the breath away in their depravity and cold, organised manifestation of evil. English academic Martin Goodman (right) has written a starkly brilliant account of Nazi oppression in Central Europe in the late 1930s. He achieves his broad sweep by, paradoxically focusing on the fine detail. One family. One teenage boy, Otto Schalmek. One fateful knock on the door while Vienna and most of Austria are waving flags to welcome ‘liberation’ in the shape of the Anschluss.
The Schalmek family are Jewish. That is all that needs to be said. The family becomes just a few lines on a ledger – immaculately kept – which records the ‘resettlement’ of Jewish families. Otto is taken to Dachau and then to Birkenau. His ability as a cellist precedes him, and he is sent to play in the house of Birchendorf, the camp Commandant. His wife Katja is the artistic one, and her husband merely seeks to keep her entertained by using Schalmek as a kind of performing monkey who plays Bach suites on the cello in between sanding floors and mopping up shit in the latrines.
he great irony is that Katja is unable to hear Schmalek’s artistry. She is, quite literally, deaf to the Baroque intricacies being played on the stolen Stradivarius. She is, however able to hear through her fingertips as she places her hands on the cello while Schalmek plays. She is pregnant, and although her other senses cause her to be repelled by the captive cellist’s physical state, there is an almost erotic connection between the two.
History, in the shape of Hitler’s madness and the relentless march of the Red Army, intervenes, and the death camps are liberated. Birchendorf is captured and arraigned for war crimes, while his wife and their young daughter manage to lose themselves in the flood of genuine refugees from the devastation caused by war. They manage to escape to a new life in Australia, while Schalmek also survives but goes on to become a revered composer whose rare performances are cherished by the international concert-goers.
oodman’s book spans the years and the continents. Having been shown the shattering of the Schalmek family we go from the Nuremburg trials to late 1940s Canada and then, via Sydney in the 1960s, on to 1990s California, where Katja’s grand-daughter Rosa, an eminent writer and musicologist, seeks an audience with the elusive and very private genius Otto Schalmek. Rosa Cline is determined to write the definitive biography of Otto Schalmek, but their relationship takes an unexpected turn.
Another fine novel which walks the same bloodstained roads is A Lily of The Field by John Lawton. Again we have a teenage Jewish musician, also a cellist, who is dragged from the family home in Vienna and sent to the death camps. Like Goodman’s Otto Schalmek, Meret Voytek survives in hell due to her musical brilliance. Her Nazi captors may be brutal murderers, but they are not artistic philistines. There, the resemblance between the novels ends. Voytek is saved by Russians who intercept the Death March from Auschwitz, but her post-war life becomes entangled with Cold War espionage.
is a distinctive and beautifully written novel, full of irony, heartbreak and a scholarly brilliance in the way it portrays the human devastation of Hitler’s assault on the Jews. Yes, there is the almost obligatory account of the depravity and sheer horror of the camps, but Goodman also brings a sense of great intimacy and a telling focus on the small personal tragedies and discomforts – an interrupted family meal, a tearful and hurried “goodbye”, and a new grandchild never to be cuddled by grandparents. Crime fiction? Probably not, in the scheme of things. Thrilling, often painful, and full of psychological insight? Certainly. J SS Bach is published by Wrecking Ball Press and is out now.