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.