In the Land of Armadillos by Helen Maryles Shankman

 

Well, I really enjoyed this. But, at the same time, was left wondering if it’s appropriate to enjoy so much a fictional account of the Holocaust. It reminded me of the ambivalence of emotion many felt while watching Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful. The Holocaust as fairy story is dangerous territory and requires an awful lot of artistry to bring off. I think Helen Maryles Shankman just manages it.

One of the central thrusts of these stories is the idea that hatred of a race is only possible in the abstract. That the minute you have personal relations with a member of the race you despise your blind prejudice will slowly begin to reveal itself as preposterous. Two of the stories in this collection, perhaps the most engaging two, take up this theme. In the Land of Armadillos dramatises the relationship between a Nazi monster and a Jewish painter he employs to fresco his son’s bedroom. The Nazi never registers the discrepancy between the affection and admiration he feels for the artist and the heartlessness, the conclusive lack of empathy with which he is able to treat the rest of the Jewish race. The Jew Hater is about a Polish farmer who snitches on any of his neighbours who help hide Jews. Then partisans charge him with looking after a little Jewish girl threatening him with death if he fails to keep her safe. The little girl has a transformative effect on his character.

Shankman is determined to find reasons to be upbeat about human nature and she often does this by introducing a magical element into her stories. In other words by colouring her narrative of the Holocaust with events that didn’t happen. I’ve read a fair few non-fiction accounts of the Holocaust and without doubt one of the most surprising and beautiful features of these books is the kindness and bravery shown by a few individuals in the face of colossal personal danger. If you want a testament to the selfless courage and generosity of which human nature is capable the Holocaust is a good place to look. In the universal imagination Schindler has come to represent the Holocaust more than, say, Richard Heydrich. We want to believe in the ultimate triumph of good. Shankman, like Spielberg, doesn’t shy away from the horrors. But ultimately the horrors are at the service of a life affirming message. Nothing wrong with that. But as a modus operandi it began to get a bit predictable. Every story in the collection ends on an upbeat note. The prevailing atmosphere of fear and tension which should permeate literature about Jewish characters living under the threat of Nazism is replaced by an expectation of the next magic event. I guess this would be my main criticism. Shankman’s determination to ultimately replace the horror with reasons to be cheerful about human nature. Of course she’s not alone. In fact, as some of us have discussed recently, there’s a growing trend for authors to commercially exploit the Holocaust as a vehicle for romance-driven or YA action heroine novels. Probably 90% of novels dealing with the Holocaust end on an upbeat note. We’ve become insistent on that upbeat ending. Hollywood has known this for a long time. Literature maybe is beginning to follow in its wake. It’s like if Tess was written now, she wouldn’t die on the gallows; she would walk off towards the sunset with Angel because our tolerance for the disturbing and depressing message has diminished unless it comes with the caveat of an upbeat ending, unless it sends us to bed feeling optimistic about human nature and some basic fairness in life. We’ve perhaps become more sentimental in recent times. And, as a result, perhaps even a little complacent that the Holocaust could never happen again.

Nevertheless, the fact that this collection of stories makes one think about these issues is a testament to its daring. On top of that Shankman is a very accomplished story teller. One decisive factor in determining the persuasive charge of all fiction is how much imaginative commitment and feeling an author is able to muster for her characters. Shankman excels in this regard. The fact she’s writing about her own family no doubt helps here.

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