by Aleksandar Tišma, translated by Richard Williams.
NYRB, 306 pp., £14.99, August 2021, 978 1 68137 439 0
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MiroslavBlam appreciates his apartment because it’s ‘in the centre of things, yet remains a hideaway’. A mansard at the top of his town’s most prominent building, on the edge of Main Square, it presents several lines of defence. There is a watchful janitor, no lift, many stairs to climb, ‘meddlesome people’ to pass. Even if you find the apartment, you might not find Blam: he may have slipped out along the narrow walkway that crosses the roof, above ‘the abyss’ of Main Square. On the other hand, ‘if there were a search warrant out for him’ the mansard’s seclusion would ‘turn it into a trap’. If cornered he’d jump, ‘plunge headfirst … as if diving into a swimming pool’.

Aleksandar Tišma opens The Book of Blam (1971) with these anxious imaginings. The town is Novi Sad, on the banks of the Danube, fifty miles north-west of Belgrade. It’s the 1950s, but Blam, in his thirties, feels he is ‘the fossil of a long forgotten age’, walking a ‘city full of ghosts’. As he looks down onto Main Square from his rooftop, or takes a tram along the boulevard, the narration moves from observations of the postwar Yugoslavian city to hallucinatory encounters with those who didn’t survive the raid of January 1942, when Hungarian troops killed more than a thousand Jews and Serbs, or with those who didn’t return after the round-up of 1944, when German troops sent some four thousand Jews to the camps.

Paranoia has sharpened Blam’s perception, not just of life’s dangers but of its riches. From the rooftop, his fellow citizens on the street below appear to be ‘propelled by an unknown force … pulled on a transparent string by a concealed hand’. Close up, however, it’s evident that they contract their muscles and shift their weight to move ‘in the direction they wish to go’. Blam is curious about each of them, ‘infant, girl [and] greybeard’ alike, but he’s particularly interested in the women he sees. As he stares from the window of a tram one day, a glimpse of a woman embracing a man in a grey overcoat – ‘his swarthy hand resting on her tightly sheathed thigh’ – takes him back to the vision years ago of his wife, Janja, in that same pose with the journalist Predrag Popadić. (The Holocaust is not the only source of trauma.) Popadić had been the Blam family’s lodger, taken in after Blam’s (Jewish) father lost his newspaper job. Not wanting to be associated with his own people in any way, Blam hankered for what he found in Janja, her ‘rootedness in the soil’, ‘lifeblood, ties, identity’, which promised exemption from persecution once they married. Popadić helped Blam and Janja find jobs – but then he became Janja’s lover and probably fathered the daughter Blam brings up as his own. Blam recognises that the things Janja found attractive about him – his education, sophistication and relative wealth – ceased to have any allure once the war began. If The Book of Blam isn’t straightforwardly a ‘Holocaust novel’, it’s nevertheless about the Holocaust, since what happened in Novi Sad between 1940 and 1945 radically altered everyone’s status and every relationship.

Blam appears to be the same age as Tišma, who was born in 1924 and grew up in Novi Sad, the son of a Serbian father and Jewish Hungarian mother. He and his family weren’t killed in the 1942 raid because when soldiers stormed their apartment block a Hungarian neighbour vouched for them. Other families were dragged out into the street, taken to the frozen river, shot and pushed into holes in the ice. In The Book of Blam, Blam’s father and mother are killed after the soldiers speak to Lajos Kocsis, the malicious lover of one of their neighbours. Blam fantasises about pointing a gun at Kocsis’s head and is ashamed to think that he might not be able to pull the trigger. He can’t kill and can’t face being killed. ‘He had failed to face the rifle barrels like his father and mother, the search patrols like his sister, Estera.’ At the funeral of an old friend, Blam asks himself whether survival had been worth it. ‘Inhaling the moist air redolent with freshly dug earth … he feels it was: life is wonderful, sweet, fragrant, palpable, engrossing.’

Tišma began his Novi Sad trilogy – The Book of Blam, The Use of Man and Kapo – in the 1970s, and all three are now available in English (superbly translated by Michael Henry Heim, Bernard Johnson and Richard Williams). In their determination that the very worst be said, they are grim but not depressing – exhilarating, even. Each novel is quite different in structure and tone; what they share is a radical narrative fragmentation, moving rapidly back and forth between real and imaginary, present and past. Just as Virgil urges Dante to keep moving when ‘ghastly wounds’ threaten to ‘intoxicate [his] eyes’ in the Inferno, so Tišma never settles for too long on the violence that wrenched these lives apart. At one point in The Use of Man (1976), Vera, an Auschwitz survivor, is asked to write down her experiences during the occupation. She can’t do it. ‘The crucial events, it seemed to her, ought to be described in the minutest detail, but they were in disorder, unconnected, and connecting them in memory would cause immeasurable distress.’ Fragmentation is a form of protection, a way of making memory compatible with ‘the passion for survival’.

The Use of Man opens with a death. Fräulein Anna Drentvenšek is a German woman who, in the years before the war, flees an unhappy marriage in Slovenia. She finds refuge in Novi Sad, a mixed community of Serbs, Hungarians, Croats, Romanians and Jews, where she is able to make a living as a private German teacher. When she realises she is dying she begs one of her pupils, Vera Kroner, to burn her diary. But Vera is unable to do so: having read it, she can’t accept that the ‘whole human being’ it seemed to contain should ‘vanish so easily, so abruptly’. When Sredoje Lazukić, another of Anna’s pupils, comes across the diary in Vera’s abandoned home five years later, we are given the full text, which provides a frame for the wartime stories which the novel weaves together. It’s a chronicle of ordinary loneliness and displacement. Anna writes about a lover for whom she would willingly become a slave, but who is absent, indifferent, and another lover who would willingly become a slave for her, but is undesired, coarse. There is frustration, there are appeals to God and to fate. Sredoje is disappointed by what he reads. ‘Fräulein, whom he had known as self-assured to the point of obduracy, was suddenly revealed to be fragile to the point of helplessness in the face of life.’

Tišma focuses on the link between libido and violence and the ways in which it played out during the struggle for survival of the early 1940s. He follows three of Anna’s pupils: Vera, Sredoje and Milinko Božić. In an early scene Vera is attacked by ‘a dozen boys bombarding her with snowballs … uttering hoarse cries of satisfaction, like beaters rousing game’. They crowd round to kiss ‘her scarlet cheek … as if she were a piece of food that each had to take a bite of quickly’. The ‘headstrong’ Sredoje joins in, but when he boasts about it to Milinko, the other boy, ‘gentle but resolute’, takes pity on Vera and becomes her boyfriend. Their relationship is chaste and directionless, since Vera avoids instinctual behaviour. She is studying German with Anna because her Jewish father, Robert Kroner, who has lost control of his business following the introduction of the race laws, wants her to speak proper, cultured German (unlike her mother, a German woman from a modest family). Milinko, brought up by a poor widow, is taking lessons as part of an optimistic project of self-improvement. Sredoje comes from a much wealthier family. His Serbian father loathes the Germans and thinks his son should get to know the enemy, though Sredoje is more interested in visiting the local brothel. At a dance class one evening, Vera momentarily leaves Milinko, her regular partner, and dances with Sredoje. They discover that ‘their movements harmonised so smoothly and so completely that they did not feel themselves to be separate individuals.’ Milinko looks on innocently while they ‘burn each other with the coals of their closeness’.

Tišma’s characters in The Use of Man fall into two groups: those who follow their instincts, and those who yearn for distance and control at the risk of missing out on life. Vera’s father senses that his ‘inability to shed blood’ is ‘some kind of physical defect that made him inferior to other people’. When Milinko joins the people’s army, it is with the attitude of ‘a non-swimmer who plunges into the water’. The polarity is even starker among the novel’s minor characters. Vera’s brother, Gerhard, despises their father’s passivity and joins the partisans; her mother’s brother, Uncle Sep, is thrilled by the opportunities his SS uniform provides him for sex and murder. Tišma hardly distinguishes between these causes: ‘Sep Lehnart was exactly what Gerhard Kroner wanted to be: an armed killer.’

The narrative accelerates with the arrival of war, but every forty pages or so a short chapter catalogues ‘habitations’, ‘bodies’, ‘street scenes’, ‘deaths’ or ‘departures’. There are brief descriptions of the homes in which the characters live, their physiques, the moment they leave Novi Sad, the manner of their deaths. None of this is situated in the wider narrative: we don’t know the circumstances surrounding the deaths, or what significance to attach to each street scene. They are pieces in a puzzle that have to be slowly assembled until the connections become obvious: between the snowball attack of the early pages and Vera’s humiliation by German soldiers in Auschwitz, between her appalling experience and Sredoje’s picaresque progress through brothel and battlefield. ‘Didn’t it seem to Vera,’ Sredoje asks in the closing pages, ‘that Fräulein’s diary, for all its tragic tone … was a farce if read against the background of the horrors that Fräulein had escaped?’ Vera replies that ‘happiness and unhappiness could not be measured by fact but only by feeling, by the state of mind.’ Sredoje is not convinced.

Kapo (1987) is more challenging. In the first two novels, Tišma gives us male characters who seek to leave their Jewishness behind but are persecuted all the same, who wish to live passionately only to find that this leaves them feeling vulnerable and guilty. There are almost certainly elements of personal experience here. ‘The fact that I was interested in women,’ Tišma once said in an interview, ‘is normal when someone is nineteen years old. But I was more interested in women than others.’ ‘Do you like women?’ the interviewer asked. ‘On the contrary,’ Tišma replied. ‘I run away from them.’ In Kapo, he creates a protagonist who brings these conflicted impulses to an even greater intensity. ‘I was looking for such a character for a long time,’ Tišma explains. ‘In documents I found that a Jew from Zagreb had been a kapo in Auschwitz.’

Vilko Lamian is in his late fifties but can’t escape the experiences of his early twenties. In Auschwitz, he bought his survival by agreeing to become the tormentor, and sometimes even the executioner, of his fellow prisoners. Not only did he carry out the beatings the Germans expected of him but he preyed on female arrivals to the camp, luring them into a tool shed with the promise of food. Lamian knows ‘there was no justification’ for this. ‘The tool shed with the naked bodies of starving, imprisoned women had not been thrust upon him: he had engineered that entirely by himself.’

Fleeing Auschwitz when the Germans left, Lamian arrived more or less by chance in the town of Banja Luka, where he found work as a railway engineer. Early in the novel, he spots the word ‘Szabadka’ – the Hungarian name for Subotica, a Yugoslavian town – in a newspaper headline. Szabadka was the home of one of the women he abused, Helena Lifka. In choosing women at Auschwitz, he had avoided Jews; when he discovered that Helena was Jewish, he arranged for her to have extra food rations, as if he only needed to atone for his behaviour when the victim was Jewish. Now, he is convinced she is hunting him down: ‘She had taken her denunciation to the authorities … She would reveal the beast he was.’

Lamian’s terror of being exposed has forced him to adopt the qualities he loathed in the Jews he grew up with, ‘their rootlessness’ and ‘their uncertainty, because chance had brought them here and made them so timid – and therefore conspicuous and unpleasant’. Yet again and again Lamian finds himself attracted to individual Jews. His only friend in Banja Luka is Isaac Nahmijas, a judge with whom he has an ‘uneasy involuntary kinship’. Isaac tries to set him up with his wife’s younger sister, Ella, an attractive, competent divorcée. A relationship begins. Lamian realises that ‘he could in fact have [Ella] as his wife.’ But he backs off. His ‘secret life and monstrous sin’ make him unworthy of her affection. He stops seeing Isaac, telling himself he has ‘no right to this friendship’ with a ‘sincere and truth-loving man’. For sex, he falls back on a perfunctory relationship with a colleague. ‘Had he sensed any love in her he would have been frightened.’

‘Lamian is considered the most negative hero of Serbian prose,’ the journalist Luka Mičeta remarked in an interview with Tišma. David Rieff, in an afterword to Kapo, speaks of Tišma’s ‘bottomless pessimism’. But the novel would be much more pessimistic if Lamian were able to ignore his past crimes and simply enjoy life. Instead, he recognises that there is no way back for him, that having survived Auschwitz means living ‘in a camp of his own’. When Isaac Nahmijas dies unexpectedly, Lamian becomes obsessed by the thought that he should have told him the truth about his past. The judge’s ‘intelligence and experience might have enabled him to understand the most contradictory acts, even monstrous, inhuman acts’. Returning from the funeral, Lamian suffers the first in a series of fits. A violent stomach pain followed by hours of shivering reminds him of the day when, having stolen a sweater from a corpse to keep himself warm, he was forced by an SS man to stand at attention for hours, soaked in water, on the snowy Auschwitz parade ground. It was then he realised ‘that he must gain the right to confiscate sweaters – that he must become a kapo’. Now he understands that he must talk to someone if he is to go on living. Even ‘to make one’s peace with death’ requires a ‘summing up of what had been lived … And this summing word had to be spoken, and heard and confirmed.’ It’s not a question of appealing for forgiveness, which is unthinkable, but of speaking the truth.

To whom can Lamian confess? Ella is ‘too healthy, too proud to understand and accept the filth that would come spewing from his mouth’. It must be someone who knows ‘the squalor and the cold and the threat of death … [the] nights and days of hunger, of listening for danger, of feverish hallucinations’. Although still terrified of the consequences of meeting her, Lamian decides to go in search of Helena Lifka. ‘Her naked body appeared to him now, hands crossed over her crotch, the small flabby breasts, close-cropped hair, teary eyes – a grotesque primeval deity, the totem of a tribe to which he had never wanted to belong but which had now subjugated him to its avenging faith.’

At a police station in Subotica he’s given an address in Zagreb. He hesitates, and considers his past. Was he born evil, he wonders? Unlike the SS guards, he wasn’t taught to be. In his desperation to find some semblance of sensuality in the camps, he had chosen evil. Even now, looking for Helena in Zagreb, Lamian watches the people around him, craving intimacy above all else. But every relationship he observes begins to organise itself into the logic of the camps, as if male sexuality inevitably leads that way – after all, the ‘camps were made by men, not women’. In a long, vivid scene in a bar, he allows himself to be drawn into a negotiation with a pimp and a prostitute. Later, when the woman is preparing herself in his hotel bathroom, he reflects that these people too are ‘prisoners … though they walked in apparent freedom; they were forced … to stand to attention, at every roll call, before the flag of nocturnal adventure.’ From his room he sees an elderly man across the street. The bowed head and clasped hands remind him of a Mussulman (as prisoners who had lost the will to live were called in Auschwitz), of that ‘calm before death, the treacherous, unthinking calm of surrender’. Early the next morning, knowing that his appearance can only bring torment, he climbs the steps to Helena’s front door and rings the bell.

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