Maria Àngels Anglada: The Auschwitz Violin – El violi’ d’Auschwitz (1994) Literature and War Readalong October 2012

Is there anything that would make life in a concentration camp bearable? Anything that could make it worth living? Is it justified that talent will help you survive? And if you do, how can you go on living? Maria Àngels Anglada’s short and powerful novel The Auschwitz Violin – El violí d’Auschwitz asks precisely these questions.

When Climent, a famous violinist, is invited to Krakow in 1991 for a concert, he meets the elderly Polish violinist Regina who plays on an exquisite violin. He is intrigued, he thinks he should know the luthier but, as he is told, he doesn’t. He is curious and she is keen to share the story of the beautiful instrument. The violin has been made by Daniel, Regina’s uncle, a luthier who was sent to Auschwitz. Regina was only a small girl then. She had lost her parents in the ghetto but was saved and spent the war with a non-Jewish family who let her pass as their daughter.

Daniel who is still a young man, is only saved and not exterminated right away with many others because he pretends to be a carpenter. He helps to build a greenhouse for the sadistic and despotic camp Commander and later, when the commander finds out that he is a luthier, he is ordered to build a violin for him. Another captive, Bronislaw, will have to play on it during one of the dinners the Commander gives for other Nazis. Both their lives depend on Daniel’s success. If he wasn’t such a talented and passionate luthier, he wouldn’t stand a chance to make such a delicate instrument, with hands that are rough and split from the cold and material that is far from perfect.

Working on the violin changes everything for Daniel. It isn’t only a means to survive, like helping with the greenhouse was, but it gives sense to his days, makes a human being out of him again.

The way his workshop in Poland  is described and how he makes the new violin, with so much care and love, infuses this book with beauty, despite the horrors which are evoked as well.

Every chapter begins with a quote from a historical official document in which life in the camp is rendered in a statistical and factual manner. There are reports about shootings, about medical experiments and other atrocities. This adds another layer to the book, echoes the horrors Daniel has to endure and stands in stark contrast to the beauty he experiences while remembering his old life and crafting the violin.

When the instrument is finished, Bronislaw, the violinist, plays Corelli’s Sonata “La Folia” on it. Schindler, a passing figure in the novel, tells someone about Bronislaw and he is freed and brought to Sweden.

It’s a beautifully written book but a bit light at times. I don’t know if working on an instrument would really have transformed the days at the camp like this.

The idea that two people can better their lives, maybe even save it, because of their talents struck me as cruel but realistic. It’s certainly true that those with special talents had a higher chance to live longer or even survive. What does that say about us humans.? Do we always need a reason to help? Talent, looks, frailty, illness, as long as there is something different and special. The thought made me shudder because it’s at the core of so much injustice in this world, not only in the concentration camps.

Since Corelli’s Sonata “La Folia” is so important in the book, I attached a recording. It’s a very haunting piece.

The Auschwitz Violin manages to capture the horror’s of the concentration camps without being horrifying. I think Anglada wanted to tell us that there can be beauty in the most horrible places. I hope that’s true.

Other reviews

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

 

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The Auschwitz Violin was the tenth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Gert Ledig’s The Stalin FrontDie Stalinorgel. Discussion starts on Friday  30 November, 2012.

25 thoughts on “Maria Àngels Anglada: The Auschwitz Violin – El violi’ d’Auschwitz (1994) Literature and War Readalong October 2012

  1. I’m still reading (have about 40 pages to go) so have just skimmed your post and will be back–I’m not entirely sure what I think so far. I wonder if I am feeling a little fatigued by stories like this? Not sure if it’s me or the book that is making me feel so-so, but I am not so inclined to pick it up and read, but will finish it tonight. It could just be my mood–I suppose it is hard to come up with a new angle on stories like this–I wonder if it is based on actual events…haven’t read about the book or author yet.

    • I wasn’t as explicit in my post but I had the same feeling. I thought it didn’t really add a lot more but when I finished I saw what she wanted to show us, that there is beuaty in the worst places. I’m just not so sure I can agree.
      I’m looking forward to your review to see another impression.

  2. What an intriguing premise for a novel, although it sounds as if you are not entirely sure about the way it plays out. I do think though, that there are many, many injustices which structure our lives, and which may well have provided stark divisions in a concentration camp. Having talents which were useful to the camp commandants – and I guess it was pure luck whether the talents fit the requirements – probably would have postponed death, if not been the difference between survival and extermination.

    • I thought the novel’s premise was intriguing but as you detected I was really not sure about the outcome. While I found she captured very well what being talented must have meant, I don’t think she made me “buy” the “there is beauty in the worst places” premise… On the other hand, one of my most beloved books, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, has this as a central theme and there I could really agree…

  3. Survival of the talented, not just the fittest. Yes, it’s unspeakably cruel that a small group of evildoers decided who should live and who should die and on what basis.
    I just read two Holocaust books back-to-back, so will have to wait on this one, but I’m intrigued by the story, Caroline. Your review was excellent as usual.

  4. My apologies Caroline. I meant to read this book last week, but then I came down with a cold and I didn’t read much of anything. I still want to read this one.

  5. Nice review, Caroline! The premise of the book looks beautiful – constructing a beautiful violin which helps the main character to survive. I also this sentence from your review very much – “The idea that two people can better their lives, maybe even save it, because of their talents struck me as cruel but realistic.” I also liked very much the Corelli sonata that you have posted. Corelli is one of my favourite composers 🙂

    • Thanks, Vishy. the book does have beuatiful elements, I liked all the parts on the violin. I find this an amazing profession, and I thought the book captured this well.
      I always have to listen to music which is mentioned in books and in this case, i thought the choice was brilliant. I like Corelli a lot as well. 🙂

  6. Hi Caroline,

    Great review, so good you almost convinced me to read a book about WWII. 🙂

    I don’t know why but it reminded my of Balzac & la petite tailleuse chinoise by Dai Sijie.

    • Thanks, Emma.
      I know how you feel about WWII books but this one is different.
      I’ve read Dai Sijie as well but they not that similar, I wonder what reminded you. Maybe I don’t remember it so well anymore.

  7. I share your sentiments that it is a hard sell that working on this instrument would make the Auschwitz experience more bearable. Though the book sounds like it has its merits, I am afraid that that skepticism might get in the way of me getting much out of this work.

  8. Pingback: Review: The Violin of Auschwitz by Maria Àngels Anglada « Diary of an Eccentric

  9. Frankly, I completely lost track of time and although I had finishd it on time, I did not realize it was posting time. I “read” it via audio book which was a new experience, but given the lack of time I have these days to read a good book it worked out as I listened to it on the way bto and back from a wedding.

    I think your review is one of your best. Your questions are appropriate for the book. I love your passion and have to admit I was not as invested.

    1. The idea of opening every chapter with excerpts from Nazi documents was brilliant and chilling. However, it seemed like the last few chapters did not have these openings. Am I wrong?
    2. She writes well, but not superbly. Some lines were great like: SS officers were “impeccably dressed unless bespectacled by blood.” Describing them as” monsters in human clothing”.
    3. The book works better if you have not read a lot on the Holocaust. I found that all the concentration camp touchs (e.g. the cold water experiments) were elements that I already knew about. I did not learn much from the book.
    4. I found the “saved by a special talent” twist to be a bit clicheish.
    5. I liked the friendship between Daniel and Bronislaw. It was so Jewish.
    6. For some reason the opening scenes did not grab me. The threat of a romance was icky.
    7. My main problem with the book was the last few chapters. I felt the book was flowing along smoothly and then something happened. Daniel is getting ready to finish the last parts of the violin (he mentions the various parts) and I’m thinking – OMG not some more technical details of violin making. Suddenly, the recital has occurred without any warning. Then suddenly the book jumps to Bronislaw after the war. Bronislaw is now the main character. The linear structure breaks down and we bounce around in time. Am I wrong about this?
    8. Overall I enjoyed the book. It would make an excellent extra credit book for my students because it is very instructive without being too depressing. It has a happy ending (which was not realistic in my opinion – either Bronislaw or Daniel should have died).

    • Thanks, I’m glad you liked the review. No worries about the time. I’m glad you read along.I didn’t think I was all that enthusiastic, I think you liked it better.
      1. I thought that was acunning idea. The last two chpaters have qioutes form other books, all the others have those documents.
      2. I wasn’t too keen on the writing, I thought it was OK but not more, precise, yes.
      3. I thought the same. After having read Primo Levi and books like that, it’s too light.
      4. Not sure that’s such a cliché, I’m afraid it’s true.
      6. and 7. For such a small novel it’s not that well constcuted, I agree but we have to think about the title. I think the violin is the main character and it is seen from different angled and POVs.
      8. I think it wouldn’t be a bad choice for students, that’s true, or anyone else who doesn’t know a lot about it.

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