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Name: The Auschwitz Violin
Author: Maria Àngels Anglada
Released: 1994 (Catalan) 2010 (English)
Ever since I read Shindler's Ark I have felt a very big urge to read more stories set and based inside the Second World War and the events that unfolded during the Holocaust. I find the stories so compelling and addictive despite their obviously sensitive subject matter, but nonetheless we should always have something that reminds us of those horrific events. Apparently this shot story written by one of Catalan's most prolific authors has received international appraise, including from John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Though after flicking through and realising that it was only just over 100 pages long, I suddenly felt very sceptical about the impact a short novel such as this would have. Was I right?
A Little About . . . Maria Àngels Anglada
Anglada was a renowned Catalan novelist who died in 1999 aged 69. Throughout her writing career she had won many well known awards for her novels. The Auschwitz Violin is also widely known as El violi d'Auschwitz.
'In the winter of 1991, at a concert in Krakow, an older woman with a marvellously pitched violin meets a fellow muscian who is instantly captivated by her intrument. When he asks her how she obtained it, she reveals the remarkable story behind its origin.
Imprisioned at Auschwitz, Daniel feels his humanity is slipping away. Treasured memories of the young woman he loved and the prayers that once lingered on his lips become hazier with each passing day. Then a visit from a mysterious stranger changes everything, as Daniel's former identity as a crafter of fine violins is revealed. The camp's two most dangerous men use this information to make a cruel wager: if Daniel can build a successful violin within a certain number of days, the Kommandant wins a case of the finest burgundy; if not, the camp doctor, a torturer, gets hold of Daniel. And so, battling exhaustion, Daniel tries to recapture his lost art, knowing all too well the likely cost of failure.'
Climent is a violin player and is captivated by the music and skill a young woman named Regina can muster when she plays a very special violin. This is a violin that looks a little bit special, it isn't an ordinary looking model of any of the 'brands' Climent knows so well. He is mesmerised by the young woman and seeks to know more about her as well as her violin. Finally plucking up the courage, he enquires about her very sentimental instrument. And so a story set in the past pursues . . .
Daniel is imprisoned at Auschwitz, a concerntration camp set up in Nazi occupied Poland. He is alone, malnultritioned and exhausted, but he stumbles on by living in hope that his wife and niece are safe and eating hearty food. He escaped the chop by lying about his profession, and so Daniel the Carpenter is asigned to the shed to work on shelving, cabinets and doors, living off turnip soup and the occasional 'lost' apple. It isnt until he interuppts the Kommandant out of urgency to save an innocent violinist's life, that he is tasked with fixing the violin and restoring it to its decent stature.
Alive with excitement and new longing for life, Daniel the Violin Maker reammurges from the shadows and takes his time to rebuild the violin and put his own stamp onto an already beautiful musical instrument. However unbeknown to him, Daniel is not only against the harsh conditions that plague the Auscwitz camp, he is also against the clock. The Kommandant has placed a bet with the sadistic doctor. Can he build the violin in time? If he fails, he will be sacrificed to the doctor's rumoured experiments and never see his family again. His life hangs inside the violin.
What I loved about 'The Auscwitz Violin' was the way in which Anglada uses the present to slip back into the past. In a short space, it adds a very true and realistic story backdrop into a novel which really isnt very long at all. At the end of the book, it skips back to the present day, but from the point of view of a character introduced from the 'past' section of the novel, and this i've got to be honest, is quite clever indeed.
If we strip it down into layers however, the beginning of the book, although it makes sense upon completion, is rather drab and laborious. I think the main reason for this is that you just simply cannot connect with the starting characters. The detail is all very vague and what little insight is given is rather uninteresting to say the least. However, once the story of Daniel begins to unfold, it is then that the real story evolves and transforms.
Life for Daniel is extrememly hard and Anglada doesn't skim on the awful life in which he exists. The whippings and confinement add a level of emotion into the novel and I challenge anyone not to feel for him. When he starts to talk about his wife, it again pulls on the heartstrings. He doesn't waste time pining to see her again, but instead dreams that she is well looked after and well fed, living a life under Nazi occupation much better than he is. This is extremely sweet and adds character to ironically a charcater whose not got a lot to give. As she describes his every effort into sanding down the violin head, or measuring the length of wood needed, you as the reader stay with him, urging him to make the best violin he can, because you know if he doesn't it will surely mean his death.
There are times however, when the story of Daniel becomes rather dull. I'm not sure if it is meant to add an underlying tone of what Daniel himself had to go through, but Angalda uses repetition a lot throughout. It becomes a bit of a chore to simply read over and over again his thoughts on the watery Turnip soup and oh how he longs for a little bit of carrot or potato to be added in secretly.You understand the first couple of times, his desperation to hold on to anything is admirable, but after a while it begins to gnaw. Why? Why repeat the same thing over and over again. At 109 pages long, we need extra titbits of Daniel's feelings to really connect with him, but sadly at times you can't help but questioning do you feel for him really as a character whom you can connect with or is it simply because it is a story set in Auscwitz that does it?
There aren't too many character's in here, but that works really well for such a short novel, too many would have made the story more complicated. Bronislaw is an interesting character, one that really starts to evolve at the end of the book. You do really feel for him as an old man trying to forget the past, but letting curiosity plague his mind. What happened to Daniel, the man who saved his life in Auschwitz? I think that is what the real problem with this book is, lack of detail. Anglada only gives you certain information about charcaters and so they do feel most of the time rather lifeless and undimensional. You know that the Kommandant and Doctor are evil men. But apart from being told that they are, you sometimes wish for scenes where it is proven. Scenes where the Doctor does experiment, or where the Kommandant unleashes his anger upon an innocent and helpless prisoner. This would have made the characters as well as the story a little more engaging.
What is interesting is the use of official documents used at the beginning of each chapter. A document which sets the scene for the theme of that chapter. For example the document at the beginning of Chapter 3 is a real letter by Dr S Racher who refuses to use a woman in his experiment to raise the body temperature of prisoners frozen in tanks of freezing water. At some point in that chapter, Daniel hears rumours about some of the experiments preformed on his fellow jews.
Anglada's use of language is quite simple, easy to follow and easy for any type of reader. When she talks about the violin and musical background she delves deep into imagery and words that flow from sentence to sentence. It spices up a subject me myself have little knowledge about. It's just a shame it never really materialises in other parts of the book. The storyline of the wager mentioned in the blurb is also a bit of a let down. It is itself not introduced until pretty late into the book and only introduced by Bronislaw as something he overheard. Again little detail is given and then that is it. The storyline is never really touched upon again apart from to be used as a cliffhanger, did he make the violin in time? Hmmm well we assume he does. As a result this makes the blurb rather false.
Overall, I would recommend this book to be read once, perhaps borrowed from a library since it is definitely not worth its £10 price tag, though I have since found out that at some point in 2011 it will be published in paperback and therefore be considerably cheaper. It has some really stand-out moments, the moment where Daniel risks his life to protect another prisoner. The moments where you can really get behind the character of Daniel and spure him on to pull through the harsh existence of a nazi ran concertration camp. However the best way to sum up this book is halfway there but never really pulling through both in characterisation and emotion. It tries to pull on the heart strings, but to be pulled off succesfully it needs much more detail and a much better opening.