Chasing the King of Hearts (2006) – Hanna KRALL

So often, Holocaust literature seems to concern itself with trying to tie in personal experiences with a wider historical context. Determined to highlight the horrors of the entire event, authors lost sight of the small stories that also took place during this time. It is one of these small stories that Hanna Krall tells in her short novel, Chasing the King of Hearts.

Izolda’s husband has been captured. And in 1942 Warsaw, this is not good news for Jewish people. Determined to find her true love, Izolda begins to plot to get him back. And nothing will stop her.

In fact, it is questionable whether we can even term this a Holocost novel. More than anything, this is a novel of undying love, and the power that can be taken from love. Izolda is so certain of her love for her husband, and of her finding him, that she seems almost impervious to the events around her. Though she is, in turn, captured by the Gestapo, imprisoned, tortured, tattooed, and eventually taken to Auschwitz, she holds on to one mission.

She seems so impervious, in fact, to all of these things, that Izolda can often be hard to get a grip on as a lead character. Her stubborn refusal to let anything affect her search for her husband makes her both admirable and frustratingly opaque. She is not the stereotypical wife of a man who has been captured—she has a plan, a way to execute it, and the determination to do so. But in not letting her main character react to anything, Krall denies us the opportunity to see how this context affects human relationships outside of the marriage.

It is not until after the war, when she is living in Israel with her Hebrew-speaking granddaughters in the above-mentioned flashforwards, that she is able to feel once again. And what she feels is sadness. Not for what happened to her, but for the fact that her granddaughters do not understand. Since she does not speak Hebrew, and they don’t speak Polish, there is no way for her to communicate her true feelings. Perhaps this is the point Krall is trying to make. We cannot understand the Holocaust because we weren’t there.

This is compounded by the short chapters that are perhaps symptomatic of a short novel. These slivers of narrative are almost uniformly brilliant: some further the plot, others are flashforwards to Izolas’s future, others still are meditations on life, religion and humanity in times of war. And yet the whole somehow remains less than the sum of its parts.

For all its moments of brilliance (and there are quite a few), Chasing the King of Hearts is not an easy novel to like. Led by a character who is determined not to let anyone in, Krall goes almost too far down this path and doesn’t allow the reader a chance to get to know or sympathise with Izolda. And while unlikeable characters are a valid part of literature, characters who fail to make a connection with the reader are not.

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2 thoughts on “Chasing the King of Hearts (2006) – Hanna KRALL

  1. An interesting last line which I am sure could make an entire post, the difference between an unlikeable character and one who fails to make a connection with reader or viewer.

    I recently watched the film that won the Palme d’Or this year and my criticism was largely character based, in that it appears to be a “coming of age” story, but with little or no transformation of the character who “comes of age”, rather the message seemed to be that without that transformation or learning, we continue to suffer in a world largely by ourselves.

    A character determined not to let anyone in, is one who resists change, but also one who can cause the suffering of others who are unable to let go, unable to give up trying. I am not yet sure whether this lack of a connection is valid or not, if it exists and we must live with it and try and understand it, it perhaps leaves us empty and questioning our own expectations.

    I am eager to get this book up the pile now and see how I find it and then to see if I understand what it provokes in my own reading. Great post, thank you.

    • Matthew Todd says:

      It’s an interesting conundrum, isn’t it?

      I have a great deal of respect for authors who try to write unlikeable protagonists. If they pull it off, it really gets to the heart of what literature is all about – to see the world through the eyes of someone who is not you. To get audiences to respond to a person who is unlikeable is, I think, the sign of a good (if not great) author.

      But how do you write for someone who seems to care not about the world, who cannot connect with anyone, reader included? Is it up to the author to help the reader feel empathy for their protagonist, or is it a legitimate choice to just present someone who simply cannot be understood?

      I appear to have answered your questions with more questions. My bad.

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