Friday, January 3, 2014

Review: The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman

First published:- 1999
Star rating:- None

This is the first time I am reviewing a book that I have tried and failed to rate.

How do I decide on a rating anyway? Should I judge the prose? the content? the author's style of presentation? his narrative voice? the quality of the translation?
Do I even have the right to? 

Awarding a star rating to this man's unbelievably harrowing and miraculous tale of surviving a war which claimed the lives of 6 million of his fellow brethren for no reason at all, seems a more sacrilegious act than calling Infinite Jest a bad book on Goodreads. 

So I choose not to.

Wladyslaw Szpilman, a pianist working for the Polish radio station, takes us through the years of Nazi occupation of Poland and Warsaw, in particular, and the insensate violence that had the Jewish inhabitants of the city (the ones who were fortunate enough to be spared the concentration camps) living the most brutal and unforgiving of nightmares for a period of almost 5 years.

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                                                 Wladyslaw Szpilman

Szpilman writes with a kind of unnerving indifference, as if this were someone else's tale of horrors he is narrating and not his own. It is obvious that since he had written this in 1946, immediately after the war, his senses may still have been numbed under the influence of the barbarous acts he had witnessed through the 6 years of the Occupation. His voice doesn't sound sarcastic, debilitated or even a little bit acerbic. Instead, he gives us a neat, uncluttered, unemotional, chronologically ordered account of events which saw him narrowly escaping certain death many, many times.

But this is not just his story. A surprise awaits the unsuspecting reader at the very end, in the form of Wilm Hosenfeld, a Nazi officer who saved Szpilman's life in the last few months of 1944. An astonishingly mild-mannered, generous soul who not only kept the knowledge of Szpilman's existence a secret from the other SS officers, but saved him from certain death out of starvation and the unbearable cold.

But true to the nature of war which justifies countering violence with more violence, Hosenfeld was taken as a prisoner of war when the Soviets finally recaptured Poland. He was tortured to death years later (1952) in some unnamed labor camp in the icy swathes of Stalingrad. His tormentors were especially cruel with him, angered by his claims of having saved the lives of many Jews and Poles during the Warsaw occupation. Which, of course, was nothing but the truth.*

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                                             Wilhelm Adalbert Hosenfeld

It goes without saying, while reading this book I had no sense of time or any movement around me, I had no idea whether it was still daytime or whether night had fallen. Turning over the last page, when I finally took note of my surroundings I discovered my pillow was half-wet with tears and that I had a dreadful headache.

Some of the most poignant, haunting and reflective passages of the narrative are in Wilm's journal which was recovered years later and incorporated into Szpilman's memoir -

"Evil and brutality lurk in the human heart. If they are allowed to develop freely, they flourish, putting out dreadful offshoots...."

A mere German officer seems to have had the moral strength to admit - 

"Our entire nation will have to pay for all these wrongs and this unhappiness, all the crimes we have committed. Many innocent people must be sacrificed before the blood-guilt we've incurred can be wiped out. That's an inexorable law in small and large things alike."

And yet the "great" Der F├╝hrer, in front of whom a vast Empire bowed down at one point of time, could only choose the coward's way out by committing suicide in the end. 

A million stars to the courage of Wladyslaw Szpilman, who aided the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto, disregarding the constant threat to his own life. A million stars to his unflinchingly honest attempt at looking back at a terrible past. A million stars for enabling the citizens of the world to read, know and derive lessons from the story of his life. A million stars to Wilm Hosenfeld for holding on to his conscience at a time when morality and compassion were in short supply. 

And a million stars to the triumph of the human spirit. 

(So you see the correct rating of this book should be 5 million stars which is beyond the scope of any conventional rating system.) 

*Wilm Hosenfeld was posthumously recognized as a Righteous among the Nations in 2009 by Israel.

P.S.:- This review maybe updated after I watch the movie.


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