Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Back in early April I put together a list of books for a culture clash project but I’ve been very slow getting the project off the ground and just read the first of these titles over the weekend. However, my first book was definitely worth the wait – Arnost Lustig’s Lovely Green Eyes (translated from Czech by Ewald Osers).

I don’t think I could have started this project with a more perfect (and unfortunately, by that I mean tragic) example of cultural conflict. Lustig’s novel is set during the last few months of WWII, at a military brothel in Poland, and describes the experiences of a 15-year-old Jewish girl who manages to exchange death at Auschwitz for life as a prostitute.

For a number of very obvious reasons, this was not an easy novel. The task Lustig set himself, if indeed that is how he conceived it, seems to have been to create a stunningly, achingly beautiful narrative out of a subject more suited for nightmare. The physical landscape of the novel is fashioned from a meticulous collection of horrific and specific detail – ash from the gas chambers at Auschwitz floating through a wintery sky, the scrapings and rustlings of rats in the brothel, a constant inventory of eye color and hair color, the visible signs and symptoms of malnutrition and chronic dysentery, the sounds of physical violence.

That landscape is bleak and cold and horrible, as it is meant to be. But Lustig takes great care to integrate an abundance of humanity to his narrative. Skinny, as she is called at the brothel, alternately condemns and forgives herself for choosing to become a prostitute to escape death. She wonders continually at her desire to survive – Is this a sin? Would it have been better to die?

Aside from Skinny, Lustig’s humanity comes from the faces and stories of the other prostitutes, from the Madam, even from the soldiers which arrive by truckload for the girls each day. One of the more fascinating expressions of Lustig’s vision comes from the juxtaposition of two officers who come for Skinny – Wehrmacht Captain Henschel and Obersturmführer Stefan Sarazin from the Waffen-SS. Both of these men are her enemies, both would kill her on the spot if they suspected her true ethnicity. They are each a part of the vast and frightening Nazi machine, yet Lustig renders each so carefully, gives each a unique and complicated identity, they become one of the many faces of the war. Sarazin, in particular, presents an intricate portrait of Nazi psychosis.

Through Skinny’s encounters with these two officers, Lovely Green Eyes goes courageously deep into the psychology of what it meant to believe in the war from the German perspective and what it meant to understand that belief and know you were on the wrong side of it.

Of all the books on the Holocaust that I’ve read, this has to be one of the very best, along with George Semprun’s L’Ecriture ou la Vie, which I felt treated the subject in a similar way – how do we live with the memory of a tragedy of this scale, on both a personal and more collective, or national, level?

Lustig has three other novels, all of which have been translated. His first novel, A Prayer For Katerina Horowitzowa, was published in 1974 and nominated for a National Book Award.

8 Responses to “Arnost Lustig – Lovely Green Eyes”

  1. Stefanie

    Wow, this sounds harsh but well done and insightful. I will have to keep my eye out for it. Your project is off to a good start!

  2. ds

    Stark and terrible (the story, that is, not Lustig’s writing, or your review), but necessary. What else has he written? I cannot shake the feeling that I read something of his ages ago, but cannot recall what it was…

  3. Colleen

    I’m going to have to read this book. Thanks for the really compelling review!

  4. Biblibio

    There’s also a bit of irony, I think, that such a tragic and serious book should be written by a man with a name that means “funny” or “cheerful” in German.

  5. verbivore

    Stefanie – I couldn’t have picked a better book to start, hopefully the rest will provide the same amount of food for thought.

    ds – He has three other novels and all of them deal with the Holocaust in some way or another. He’s extremely famous in the Czech Rep but taught for years at American Univ in the States.

    Colleen – I’d love to know what you think if you do get the chance to read it.

    Biblibio – I had no idea, but looking at it now of course I see..that is ironic. I suspect the irony is not lost of him, however, he was interned in seveal concentration camps during the war…

  6. Dorothy W.

    I’ve thought of reading this one before, although I didn’t have much of an idea what it was about. It sounds great, if difficult and harsh. Thanks for the review!

  7. Litlove

    I’ve never heard of Lustig although I am a big fan of Jorge Semprun. I found it much easier to read Holocaust literature when I was going to teach it, though. I guess it gave me a distance I didn’t otherwise have. But if I ever find I can manage such books unmediated by class, I will turn to this one.

  8. verbivore

    Dorothy – It actually wasn’t as difficult as I had imagined it would be. I put it off for some time before reading it, assuming I would find it depressing. But there was so much to the book…

    Litlove – I never thought of that…how teaching would make it easier to approach a difficult text. I can see why that would be true. I do think you would appreciate Lustig’s work, it was very beautiful.

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