Bookmark: Wide-angled view

A rich portrait of Bohemian Jewish life through the eyes of a child.

Panorama book 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Panorama book 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Panorama, H.G. Adler’s novel first published in 1968 and recently translated from the original German by Peter Filkins, begins with a visit to an actual Panorama. World War I is drawing towards its conclusion; Josef, a small child of bourgeois Bohemian Jewish stock, is unaware of the social and political tumult unfolding around him. The demands of daily life are of greater importance to the eight year old, and the outside world only occasionally intrudes.
The Panorama was an old-fashioned entertainment of the day. The viewer set his eyes to a pair of peepholes, and was able to view a succession of scenarios as they rotated mechanically past the vantage point. Each individual picture was static, but collectively created a narrative of sorts. “There is no whole, only individual pieces without end.”
It is not a lineal story, but rather the evocation of a time or a place; the Panorama concentrates the mind of the viewer on the wealth of detail and content that it reveals.
Panorama is much the same. Unfolding in 10 distinct episodes spanning the era between the close of World War I and the aftermath of the Holocaust, the novel creates a rich portrait of Bohemian Jewish life, as channelled through Josef’s experiences. Stories from this period, setting the historical context to the fate of European Jewry, are commonplace and of variable literary merit, but Panorama stands out because Adler makes no overt effort to superimpose a narrative shaped by hindsight. Rather it focuses, in intimate and at times overpowering detail, on the here and now: What was the experience of living through these times?
H.G. Adler wrote 26 volumes of fiction, poetry, philosophy and history over the course of his lifetime. Born in Prague in 1910, he was sent to a Jewish work camp in 1941 before being subsequently deported to Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and finally Buchenwald. Sixteen members of his immediate family, including his wife and both his parents perished in the Holocaust. After the war, he returned briefly to Prague, before moving to London where he lived until his death in 1988. In his lifetime, he was perhaps best known for Theresienstadt 1941-1945, detailing his experiences as a slave laborer before being sent to Auschwitz with the acuteness – and, by all accounts, the intellectual and philosophical detachment – of a social historian.
Panorama – actually written in 1948, but only published 20 years later – presents a dense, powerful, yet at times counterintuitive perspective to the interwar period. It never underplays the underlying nationalistic and anti- Semitic attitudes, but nonetheless introduces a complexity to one’s appreciation of the period. The teenage Josef attends The Box – a boarding school run “with a firm and unflinching hand.” The prevailing understanding is that the war was lost through “cowardly betrayal”; military exercises are no longer allowed because of the “unfair peace treaty that had been signed.”
When Josef is called a “Czech pig” by a contemporary at school, he retorts by calling his aggressor a “German pig.” A schoolmaster is enraged by Josef’s temerity and thrashes him soundly. “That’s something, when someone doesn’t know what he is and to whom he belongs! That’s the way it is with the Gypsies, who wander from place to place without a land of their own, surviving on whatever slips into their fingers!”
But Adler’s point is that this was not all there was, that Jewish life of the era ought not be interpreted solely in terms of one of living constantly in the shadow of fear. If anything, the individual episodes, elliptic and self-contained as they are, create a more rounded impression of the age. Joseph passes through university, flirts with mysticism, tutors the teenage sons of a wealthy businessman, takes up a job at a cultural center.
The growing cancer of racism is referenced, if at times obliquely. But the portrait that emerges is not one of an unremitting groundswell of hatred; to the contrary – and perhaps more chillingly, given the hindsight which the reader has, but which Adler does not allow his hero – Josef engages with this as part of the social furniture, rather than as evidence of what is to come.
Even after being interned in a work camp after the start of World War II to build a railroad (“...even the Jews need to do something for once”), Josef retains both his humanity and an innocence, in tune with the character that evolves through the 400-odd pages. But one cannot avoid the tragedy of this outlook. A fellow internee – this is before deportation and the death camps, remember – asks him if he has any hope. “No, not hope, that’s not what he’d call it, but instead a readiness to accept at any moment whatever might happen, it’s probably life itself that we should accept at any moment without fear.” Josef’s philosophical engagement with his reality is at times discomfiting, but never feels forced or unreal.
Panorama unfolds in the form of a series of long, unbroken stream-of-consciousness passages, Josef meditating on his observations of the world around him. It is much in the tradition of, say, James Joyce; as with Joyce, one is tempted at times to accuse Adler of self-indulgence. But this would not be entirely fair. The writing does demand the utmost patience and concentration from the reader, but through the sheer richness and volume of detail, it achieves an unimpeachably veracity of character and tone. The threads that constitute the tapestry of Panorama are very many indeed, but without this literary conceit, the story would be much the poorer.
Filkin’s translation reads fluently and smoothly, retaining an old fashioned sensibility to phrasing and construction without ever seeming ungainly or forced. Given Filkin’s historical connection to Adler’s material, it is easy to conclude that his work on Panorama was something of a labor of love. Not that this matters; Panorama is an important literary and historical contribution to a lost age. The reader owes Adler’s translator a debt for introducing his work to the English-reading world.