Books: A novel escape

Fergus O’Connell creates a story within a story by two women imprisoned in Theresienstadt.

Jewish women rescued from Theresienstadt read while resting on their beds in the Hadwigschulhaus in St. Gallen, Switzerland (photo credit: WALTER SCHEIWILLER/UNITED STATES HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM)
Jewish women rescued from Theresienstadt read while resting on their beds in the Hadwigschulhaus in St. Gallen, Switzerland
There is no shortage of Holocaust novels in the world, from so many different angles that you’d be forgiven for thinking there might be room for no more. So if you are going to write Holocaust fiction in the 21st century, make it good and make it count.
Where does Fergus O’Connell’s The Paradise Ghetto fit in? The answer is not so simple.
Two young Dutch Jewish women, Julia and Suzanne, are transported to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp for “privileged Jews.” Julia is damaged and cynical; Suzanne hails from a more loving, sheltered background. The two share a love of books, and they cling to that and to each other in a world drained of humanity.
The name “The Paradise Ghetto” for Theresienstadt was a Nazi propaganda lie, of course. Yet the women successfully create their own private paradise when they resolve to write a book together.
They completely throw themselves into writing a historical novel of revenge in a notebook they have. Set in first-century Britain, it follows a young woman named Birkita, captured by Romans and taken to Pompeii. The chapters of this novel take up much of the rest of The Paradise Ghetto, interspersed with chapters from the girls’ lives in Theresienstadt.
The fictional novel resembles its parent book in a number of ways, reading easily, with sympathetically drawn characters struggling to survive in challenging circumstances.
But the device of a novel within a novel is risky. It can end up being confusing and fragmenting for the reader. I was able to follow the plot, but still had a bit of a bumper-car ride, constantly flung back and forth across the centuries.
More importantly, if one is going to use this device, it should enrich and deepen the understanding of the characters and should dialogue with the real book in some interesting way. Margaret Atwood successfully achieved this in The Blind Assassin, clueing us in to a subterranean part of her protagonist’s life in the latter’s writing.
Does our first-century novel likewise manage with this device? Yes and no.
On the plus side, an interesting dissonance is set up as we move back and forth between Julia and Suzanne starving in icy German-occupied Czechoslovakia, and Birkita carted off to sunny ancient Italy and fed well there. Though these are widely diverging contexts, the two oppressor races meld, and the message conveyed is “scratch a Nazi and you’ll find a Roman” – brutality and lack of compassion being common to both. Events in the book mirror the girls’ relationship, and betrayals there reflect those in their own lives. Suzanne, for example, deliberately kills off a character so as to shut Julia out emotionally.
Yet, with this, there is a certain lack of subtlety that jars – we are told explicitly how the fiction reflects real life, rather than being left clues. In fact, there is a literary quality absent from both books (real and fictional); in its place, a bit too much sensational material. I wasn’t moved or deeply engaged; I always felt like a spectator.
It was only in the very last chapters that I was stirred, agitated and profoundly affected.
These final chapters showed me what the author is capable of: a poetic and powerful voice that could make a book a worthwhile addition to Holocaust literature.
Unfortunately, the majority of the book, while full of good, tight writing, feels somewhat gratuitous. I wouldn’t recommend it, with its adult themes, to teens or a religious population, or those easily offended.
It also bothered me that the girls’ Jewish identity was so weak. Beyond the formal fact of their Jewish parentage, it was entirely devoid of content. Even if realistically portraying those highly assimilated Jews rounded up, it nonetheless left me with an empty feeling, like when you click on a link and the “404 Not Found” message pops up on your screen.
As much as The Paradise Ghetto is about the Holocaust, it is also a story about writing: the power of immersing oneself into the act, and the haven it provides, even in the most hellish places on earth.
Throughout the ups and downs of the girls’ relationship, the writing of the book remains a constant; and indeed, Julia is happier than she has ever been in her life.
As in the film Life is Beautiful, we see how through the imagination, one can create beauty and playfulness out of the worst hell.
As Viktor Frankl said: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
This novel takes the Holocaust experience from victim to creator, to the degree possible under those oppressive circumstances. This inspiring message is one I greatly appreciate.