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Authors: Louis Begley

Wartime Lies

BOOK: Wartime Lies
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“A WONDROUS AND PICARESQUE STORY …

Told with haunting grace and austerity, of a golden childhood into which anguish creeps gradually and imperceptibly … Powerfully told.”


Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Stunning … Captures the unequivocal dread and evil of those years with stark and haunting prose, for Maciek’s young voice is so pure—so unselfconsciously honest—that it etches itself into the memory like writing on stone …
Wartime Lies
has a sense of being written from the darkest and most private chambers of a man’s heart.”


The Boston Globe

“An artful, beautifully written novel that tells the powerful story of a boy and his aunt—Polish Jews—caught in the horror of the Holocaust. Alone together, these two manage to survive the unbearable, saving their lives with mundane and brilliant lies.”

—Jean Strouse

“Chilling … Begley writes with a kind of muted and stunned air, as if the words are sticking in his throat. The exquisite soft note of the master writer of the genre, Primo Levi, is sometimes heard in the novel.”


The New York Review of Books

“Remarkable … A work of power and eloquence.”


The Philadelphia Inquirer

“A virtuoso (and virtuous) accomplishment … What Louis Begley’s vividly austere prose embodies is an immaculate act of witness in the form of a novel … Begley raises fresh and risky questions about quarry and hunter, volition and obedience, decency and ideology.”

—Cynthia Ozick

“EXCEPTIONAL … GRIPPING FROM BEGINNING TO END.

Every word rings true. In the ever-burgeoning field of Holocaust literature, this novel stands out as a masterfully told tale, exceptional in its detailing of everyday life as led by the hunted, to whom no day was ordinary.”


The Miami Herald

“Spare and beautifully written …
Wartime Lies
is a meditation on the human capacity for every kind of abomination and for self-sacrifice and heroism as well.”

—Daniel Aaron

“A profound work of art—haunting, terrifying, and absolutely enthralling.”

—James Chace

“Haunting … The book takes the reader into the nightmarish world of Polish anti-Semitism and the Germanic insistence on carrying out the Final Solution…. The child grows into manhood deformed by years on the run, knowing full well that he escaped the horror, but he can’t free himself from its memory.”


St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Haunting, powerful … [A] searing story of the quest for an authentic self in an insane world.”


Publishers Weekly

“A marvel of compression, recollection, and lyric intensity.”

—Shana Alexander

For my mother

 

T
AKE
a man with a nice face and sad eyes, fifty or more winters on his back, living a moderately pleasant life in a tranquil country. He is a bookish fellow, the sort you would expect to find in a good publishing house or at a local university teaching how to compare one literature with another. He might even be a literary agent with a flair for dissident writing: texts bearing witness against oppression and inhumanity. Sometimes, in the evening, he reads Latin classics. There is no question anymore of his being able to do a version. He learned Latin in great globs to pass whatever examination happened to be blocking his path, always in the very nick of time; his knowledge was never precise. Fortunately, the power to grasp meaning and to remember has remained. He reveres the
Aeneid.
That is where he first found civil expression for his own shame at being alive, his skin intact and virgin of tattoo, when his kinsmen and almost all the others, so many surely more deserving than he, perished in the conflagration
.

He takes care to keep the metaphor at a distance. His native town in eastern Poland was no Ilium, and even if some SS black-shirt, imperturbably beating an aged former human being with a riding crop, is a pretty good stand-in for Pyrrhus slaughtering Priam, where, in that senseless tableau, are the contending golden-haired gods and goddesses? He has seen such a beating, administered to a totally bald man forced to kneel, the blows aimed at the top of the head, the man’s hands folded behind his back, unable to wipe the blood streaming down his face. What insult to what goddess was avenged by that outrage? Did Jove, sulking, order into action the detail of old Jews so usefully engaged in cleaning street gutters, also on their knees, under the supervision of Jewish militiamen, long staves held at the ready?

Now he caresses the metaphors. When Aeneas plays the tourist in Carthage, thoughtfully enveloped in a cloud by his immortal mother, his astonished eyes behold scenes of Trojan slaughter portrayed artfully on Dido’s palace walls. Did not our man himself, quickly after his war ended, see in the first books of photographs of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald naked, skeletal men and women alive and staring at the camera, corpses lying in disorderly piles, warehouses of eyeglasses, watches and shoes? Where is the sense of his survival? Father Aeneas fleeing Troy with little lulus fulfills an immutable promise: he will found eternal Rome; by the will of Jove and a twist of the tongue, Ascanius-Iulus will become the forebear of the Julian Caesars. Our man, sea-tossed, hollowed out and bereft, thinks he has no discernible destiny. His memorable scenes are the stuff of nightmares, not myth
.

Our man avoids Holocaust books and dinner conversations about Poland in the Second World War even if his neighbor is beautiful, her eyes promising perfumed consolation. Yet he pores over accounts of the torture of dissidents and political prisoners, imagining minutely each session. How long would it have been before he cried and groveled? Right away, or only after they had broken his fingers? Whom would he have betrayed and how quickly? He has become a voyeur of evil, sometimes uncertain which role he plays in the vile pictures that pass before his eyes. Is that the inevitable evolution of the child he once was, the price to be paid for his sort of survival?

A different affinity draws him to Catullus, a beacon flashing across black water. He imagines the poet’s childhood near Verona, the charming Sabine villa, the swift yacht. A tender father accompanies Catullus to Rome and sees to his establishment there. The poet loves Lesbia, beautiful nymphomaniac Lesbia, loves her not as the common run of men love a girl but as a Roman loves his sons and sons-in-law. Alas, love for Lesbia is a sickness. Lesbia, whom Catullus loves more than himself and all his tribe, turns tricks in doorways and alleys. The poet no longer wishes her to be faithful, even if that were possible. He wants to heal, to be well, to throw off the foul sickness that has robbed him of his enjoyments
. Ipse valere opto et taetrum hunc deponere morbum….
The lines have haunted our man for years, he thinks he knows Catullus’s sickness to the bone, he too has wanted to heal and to be well regardless of all else. Only this metaphor, too, fails. His disease lies deeper than the poet’s. Catullus never doubts he was born to be happy and to have pleasure in past good deeds
, benefacta priora voluptas.
The gods owe him as much for his piety
. O di, reddite mi hoc pro pietate mea.
The man with sad eyes believes he has been changed inside forever, like a beaten dog, and gods will not cure that. He has no good deeds to look back upon. Still, it is better to say the poem over and over. He will not howl over his own despair
.

He thinks on the story of the child that became such a man. For the sake of an old song, he calls the child Maciek: polite little Maciek, dancing tirelessly while the music plays
.

I

I
WAS
born a few months after the burning of the Reichstag in T., a town of about forty thousand in a part of Poland that before the Great War had belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My father was T.’s leading physician. Neither the Catholic surgeon who was the director of the hospital nor my father’s two general practitioner colleagues had his Viennese university diplomas, his reputation as a
Zeller
marked for academic success—already acquired in the first year of the
gimnazjum
and confirmed when he received one of the gold watches the Emperor Franz Josef reserved each year for the most brilliant graduating students in the realm—or, for that matter, his overflowing kindness and devotion to patients. My mother, a beauty from Cracow who was much younger than he, died in childbirth. The marriage had been arranged by a matchmaker, but the doctor and the beauty fell in love with a rapidity that became a family fable, and my father swore that he would devote what remained of his life to my mother’s memory and to me. For a very long time he kept his word.

My mother’s older sister, even more beautiful and, now
that she was the only child, much richer, was by common consent unlikely ever to marry—not even her widowed brother-in-law. In the closed world of wealthy Galician Jews, she was haunted by indistinct tales of a romance with a Catholic painter, a missed elopement, and a suspicion that the artist’s subsequent actions were strongly influenced first by the vision of her dowry, and then by the vision’s disappearance in the wake of my grandfather’s rage, directed with equal force at the religion and bohemianism of my aunt’s friend. With other women, such things might have been conveniently forgotten by more acceptable amateurs of good looks and money and their mothers and other female relations on the lookout for brides. But Tania, for that was my aunt’s name, could hope for no such indulgence. She was known as widely for her irreverence and implacably sharp tongue as for her stubbornness and bad temper. It was said that she was a female version of her father: a man whom anyone would want as a business partner but no thoughtful and well-informed person would have seriously considered acquiring as a husband or a son-in-law.

Besides, there was the shadow—family bad luck or bad blood—cast over both my mother and Tania by the suicide, some years earlier, of their younger brother. Refused admission to the university (this was at the beginning of the imposition of Jewish quotas in Poland), in love with a girl whose application had been accepted, he took to spending the days of the summer vacation on horseback, wandering through the forest that bordered my grandfather’s property. On one of his expeditions, he was surprised
by a violent thunderstorm. He dismounted, took refuge under a tree, and, holding his horse by the reins, tried to calm him by stroking and kissing his nostrils. Lightning struck very close. The horse panicked and bit my uncle repeatedly on the face. The scars were very ugly. The girl seemed more distant; my uncle didn’t know whether to blame distractions of university life or revulsion. Which reason was worse? Efforts were made to find a place for him in a university abroad, but before the fall semester was over, he went one afternoon to the stable and killed his horse and himself with two rounds of shot.

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