Half-Understood Stories

The Wall and Other Stories, Jurek Becker, (Arcade Publishing), to be released 5/6/14.

Jurek Becker is probably best know for his two novels Jacob the Liar and The Boxer, but this is the first of his works I’ve read. It’s a slim volume, just under 150 pages, containing five short stories and one essay. Becker is a Holocaust survivor—one who was quite young during WWII. He was born in Lodz, Poland, and lived in the Lodz Ghetto for several years before being sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp at the age of five. Later, he was sent to Sachsenhausen. His father, from whom he’d been separated, survived as well, and the two were united after the war. His mother died just as the camps were being liberated. He lived in East Germany for many years, a dissident author and playwright, but moved to West Berlin in 1977, retaining his East German citizenship.

The editor (Becker’s wife) has placed the one essay at the end of the book as a way of demarcating the line between fiction and non-fiction, but, not surprisingly, this line is significantly blurred, and the book is better because of that, detailed in its brevity with stories in which scene and character are quickly established.

If there is one theme that runs through the book, it’s the ways that we don’t understand the stories of our own lives as we live them. Four of the five stories are narrated in the first person: and each narrator’s grasp of his own situation is limited in some significant way. In the title story, an unnamed boy whose family is moved from one part of the Lodz Ghetto to another, recounts the adventures he and two friends devise. The narrator is aware that people are being summarily executed—an elderly shopkeeper friend of his was killed for the “crime” of having a plant in his apartment—but at the same time, cannot quite grasp the risks he faces, even in moments when he fears his own death is at hand.

In “The Most Popular Family Story” an uncle relates a “prank” played on him while he was on business in London, one made possible by his lack of English and limited knowledge of local customs. In “The Suspect” a loyal East German deals with the fact that he’s under government surveillance with a series of rationalizations that make him unable to see the true nature of that government.

This lack of full understanding is made clear in both the introduction and in the book’s final essay, “The Invisible City,” written to accompany an exhibit of photographs of the Lodz Ghetto. Becker, the author, knows the outline of his own childhood, but doesn’t remember it; he knows about the war years only through the handful of stories his father told him.

I found this incomplete understanding moving. The opening story and the young narrator’s incomplete grasp of his own situation are heartbreaking because we, the readers, know so much more than does the story’s central character. What the boy sees as arbitrary rules and limitations, we see as the leading edge of a horror about to be fully enacted.

The incomplete understanding also made me think of my own time and the things we choose not to understand because full understanding would overwhelm us. We “know” of injustices, famines, human rights violations, natural disasters, but for those not living through them understanding is not just impossible, it is also unwanted. As is the case with several of Becker’s narrators, it is, in fact, our lack of full understanding that allows us to survive.

While this is a brief book—so brief as to be frustrating—it is absolutely worth reading, offering us mirrors on the past and, if we look closely, on our own present as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *