Image Credit: jacketsandcovers
I read another World War II book after a long time. Chris Bohjalian’s “Skeletons at the Feast” had got rave reviews, which was another factor that prompted me to buy it. Here is the description from GoodReads, which best sums it up –
In January 1945, in the waning months of World War II, a small group of people begin the longest journey of their lives: an attempt to cross the remnants of the Third Reich, from Warsaw to the Rhine if necessary, to reach the British and American lines. Among the group is eighteen-year-old Anna Emmerich, the daughter of Prussian aristocrats. There is her lover, Callum Finella, a twenty-year-old Scottish prisoner of war who was brought from the stalag to her family’s farm as forced labor. And there is a twenty-six-year-old Wehrmacht corporal, who the pair knows as Manfred–who is, in reality, Uri Singer, a Jew from Germany who managed to escape a train bound for Auschwitz. As they work their way west, they encounter a countryside ravaged by war. Their flight will test both Anna’s and Callum’s love, as well as their friendship with Manfred–assuming any of them even survive.
Bohjalian’s novel has uniqueness written all over it. First of all, it’s told from the perspective of German refugees, whom history has kept hidden. We all read about the suffering of the Jews, which was profound, but from Bohjalian’s story we learn that war is indeed a great leveler and that there were innocent Germans who suffered equally. But Bohjalian does not focus just on this one angle. Uri aka Manfred provides the perspective of a Jew disguised as a German – a difficult transformation, which he adopts for survival. He puts it to good use and kills quite a few Germans as well as Russians when he witnesses them mistreating women. Then there are the Jewish prisoners themselves, a couple of women named Cecelia and Jeanne. All there stories find a point to cross towards the end and merge into the pain they are all put through by the war.
Skeletons in the Feast is an extremely well-crafted novel that makes some profound observations from all these perspectives. As I said, I was really riveted by Anna and her mother’s ignorance of what was happening at the labor camps. In fact, they did not even know that there were camps in, which there were prisoners and that they were being tortured. There are liberal descriptions of the brutalities that Russians commit towards the Germans here even as they liberate concentration camps, enough to make you shudder.
The only thing I found a bit funny was this particular sentence.
“Callum – the youngest of the group, the tallest of the group, and the only one from Scotland – had been born in India, where his father had been a colonial official, and had traveled extensively throughout Bengali and Burma and Madras as a little boy.”
I think Indian readers would immediately notice what is amiss in this passage. Firstly, Bengali is the language spoken in the state called Bengal in India. It’s a bit like saying someone traveled through English rather than England. Secondly, does Bohjalian intend Burma to be part of India? He places it in the middle of ‘Bengali’ and Madras, which is again an Indian state, and does not address it separately. If that is the case, Bohjalian has committed a geographical faux pas.
These blunders apart, Bohjalian’s writing is terse and rich at the same time and is wrought with keen psychological observations. Irony is a character in the novel. It’s not easy to write the Second World War from the German viewpoint but he does it with aplomb. And it is definitely not easy at all to show a Jew becoming attached to Germans at such a time. Yet, that is what happens to Uri. The Emmerichs become his family and he becomes close to them. Bohjalian’s subversions are a wonderful, insightful read, especially when you know that it's based on his friend's grandmother's diary containing her experiences.
Verdict: The Second World War seen through a unique lens