Relaying the experiences of Izolda, a young Jewish woman living in Poland as the Nazi regime comes into force, Chasing the King of Hearts is that rare thing – a story of an extraordinary series of experiences made utterly relatable.
Few of us (thank goodness) will ever face the persecution endured by Izolda and her friends and acquaintances, but so vividly is her character portrayed by Hanna Krall as translated by Philip Boehm that empathy is unavoidable. This is a girl who has loved, had a change of heart, and loved again – a girl who takes pride in her height and ‘sturdy legs’. She lives in a world where there are people with ‘bad’ looks and ‘good’ looks – the latter being those than can pass convincingly as Germanic.
Izolda’s ‘good’ looks and her pragmatism keep her alive, as she learns to trade whatever it takes to survive, from tobacco to cyanide to her own body.She learns how to carry her handbag as a non-Jewish woman would, develops a different cadence, and a new way of walking – all aimed at making her less visible in the wrong ways, yet, unexpectedly, also enjoyed by Izolda. “She prefers her new self to the real thing. So what does that mean? That her disguised self… that her pretend self is better than her real self.”
Izolda is asking herself questions that any young woman might, but these meandering thoughts seem shocking in their context, and all the more real for that.
The novella is divided into dozens of brief chapters, some less than a page long, and each one with a telling title. In The Padlock, one of the earlier chapters, Izolda goes to meet her husband and finds herself on the wrong side of the door of a room he, and other Jews, are locked into. “Shayek, she whispers to the lock, I can’t get in. The motors get louder and louder. Shayek! She tries to break the lock, punches it with all her strength.”
Far later, in the camp she has tried for so long to evade, Krall comments: “She’d never seen the sun rise more beautifully than it did in Auschwitz.”
It’s lines like this that give the book its power – reminding us again and again that these events happened to people like us, people who relished the beauty in every day things, and continued to appreciate things like sunrises even when reduced to sleeping nine to a bunk built to accommodate four. Yet still Izolda survives, making deals with a God she’s unconvinced is on her side.
“Evidently God had decided she was meant to survive the war. Or not. He had decided she was meant to die and she opposed his verdict.”
Shayek, her husband, is the driving force that maintains her survival instinct throughout those terrible years – everything she accomplishes is achieved with one goal – her reunion with Shayek. In short, it seems she survives so that he can – which makes the book’s ending even more thought-provoking.
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