Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Extraordinary Renditions, Andrew Ervin

Variations on a theme:  today I am posting reviews for two novels that have similar subject matter (the Holocaust), similar characters (violinists), and similar themes (survival through extreme adversity).  Both titles release today....the review of The Violin of Auschwitz appears in the next post.
Extraordinary Renditions by Andrew Ervin

The Holocaust remains one of the harshest examples of human brutality in history, and yet its history is still only partly known.  Because the regions and peoples of Eastern Europe were all involved in different degrees, the experience is not simply defined.  For example, a Jew in Russia may have had a completely different experience during this time period than a Jew in Warsaw or one in Hungary.  Because of these differences, it's possible to read new accounts and catch new details that may be missed in another publication.  All of them horrific, as the end usually remained the same no matter where they were from.

That's what made this novel especially unique: it's the first time I had ever heard of Terezin, in Czechoslovakia.  It was a camp that served as a stop on the journey to the more deadly concentration camps.  In all, more than two hundred thousand Jews are estimated to have been through Terezin and who eventually died*.  However, this camp was unique in that it was designed to propogate the idea that Hitler was simply moving Jews to a nice location to wait out the storms of war.  Films were made to show the happy Jews enjoying the orchestra and the fine foods and beautiful resort-like buildings.  However, like a movie set, this was all a facade.   Before filming, prisoners painted and revamped the buildings, potted flowers were brought in to add color, and inmates had to rehearse their smiles. 

"For days, the filmmakers shot images of children playing soccer, of families sitting around large, food-laden tables, of citizens in line to deposit fake money at the town's newly built bank.  The world would see the glorious gift the kaiser had given to the Jews-their own Edenic village, far from the devastation of the war."

Prior to filming, a symphony was prepared and practiced.  Since many musicians were sent to Terezin especially because of their talent, the symphony appeared to be a chance for them to demonstrate their skills.  The musicians were given new and stylish clothes to wear before they performed, while the potted plants in front of their chairs concealed their actual disintegrating shoes.  It was a triumphant performance, and horrific in that as soon as the filming ended, the musicians were led off the stage into waiting traincars heading to Auschwitz, and their likely death.  Adding to the poignancy was the conductor, a Jew himself, who had to choose which musicians were selected for this 'special' performance.

Sadly, for a long period of time the true horror of Terezin was hidden.  Even Red Cross investigators inspected the camp and approved of the facility.

Andrew Ervin has used this factual history to compose his own triptych-like storypiece, one that reveals true historical details from Budapest, the military (both then and now), and the structure of orchestras and music.  He begins with the fictional composer and violinist Harkalyi, one of the few children who had survived Terezin, now back in Budapest for a special celebration of his new composition.  This new symphony is to him the final evolvement of his personal life, from Terezin to a spectacular career as a renowned musician.  He's returned to Budapest to see his only living family member, his niece Magda.

In an intersecting story, Magda's boyfriend, a US soldier, is residing at the army base in Taszar, Hungary where she works on top-secret interrogations.  His own experience in Budapest is another one of survival from oppressive injustice, and one that forces him to make a choice regarding his future.  Finally, the last of the three stories is of Melanie, a musician set to play in the orchestra of the first performance of Harkalyi's new symphony.  She's a violinist conflicted about her future and discovering how oppressive dissolution and indecision can be.  She, too, finds transformation in Budapest.

The stories have a synchronicity to them because of their themes, and while the characters seek resolution, their path is never clear cut.  Despite Harkalyi's tremendous suffering, he finds that his own niece is involved in the same sort of interrogation techniques of political prisoners at the base that he himself had suffered.  He gives her a smooth stone, one given to him by his mother right before he was transported, and the last time he ever saw her.  He's carried it his entire life as a symbol of his history, and as he passes it on to Magda, it's clear she doesn't grasp the significance of the token.

I really enjoyed the historical details of this novel.  By far, the most fascinating part was about Harkalyi's life, and details of the fraud at Terezin, as well as his wish for his niece to understand her past.  The middle story about Brutus, the soldier, lost me in the details of base life and seemed to be more of an indictment on military policy today rather a character portrayal, and I didn't see exactly how it fit the book as well as the other two stories around it.  There seemed no purpose to his inclusion other than to set off on another story of human rights issues. The final story of Melanie, in the orchestra, is stronger and threads back to Harkalyi's own life.  Additionally, the book served well as a jumping-off point for further research.


Special thanks to Esther Porter of Coffee House Press for this Advance Review Copy.


  1. Thank you for this review, Amy. I visited Terezin so am especially interested in this book.

  2. I have also visited Terezin - I was horrified that the commandant's swimming pool was just over the wall from the gallows.
    Your review is excellent (as always) and I hope to get an opportunity to read this one.