As the silhouette of the violin began to acquire the shape of the template, drawing closer to his mind’s ideal, he was filled with a sense of well-being — something he hadn’t experienced for months — a physical well-being even. His hands possessed a memory of their own, he knew they did.
(from The Violin of Auschwitz, page 47)
The Violin of Auschwitz by the late Maria Àngels Anglada, translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent, is the story of Daniel, a Polish Jew and luthier (violin maker) who is a prisoner in one of the Auschwitz subcamps during World War II. Daniel is better off than many of the other prisoners, as he is assigned to less strenuous carpentry jobs, but the never-ending worries about whippings and the constant hunger have taken their toll. After the camp’s commander discovers Daniel’s pre-war profession, he is ordered to build a violin to the specifications of a Stradivarius as part of a bet between the commander and the evil SS doctor who experiments on the prisoners.
The frame story is set in Krakow in 1991, where a violinist named Climent is captivated by the velvety tones of a unique violin. Regina is unwilling to part with the violin crafted by her uncle in the dark days of the war. Having lost nearly all of her family in the Holocaust, Regina finds it difficult to tell the story, but she gives Climent some notes to help him piece it together.
Although it spans only 109 pages, The Violin of Auschwitz was a difficult book to finish — not because of the subject matter but because of the writing. There is very little plot; essentially this is the story of a violin’s birth, the story of an artist at one with his craft. I’m not sure why the author chose to set the book in Auschwitz, given that Daniel is a flat character who is kept at arm’s length from the reader. There is no sense of desperation or horror or sadness that you would expect from a Holocaust novel. Horrible things happen, but in the background, so the emotional reaction is muted. Even the characters in the frame story are dull, and they are barely introduced to readers.
Moreover, the writing just didn’t grab me. It was all telling, not showing, with little description and no sense of place. It felt like someone was merely summarizing what had the potential to be a moving story about art and passion overcoming the worst hardships and how the beautiful can shine through in even the ugliest of times.
There are some interesting things to take away from The Violin of Auschwitz, like the contrast of historical Nazi documents detailing the brutality of the camps to the beauty that takes shape in Daniel’s weary hands and how something so fragile as a violin could survive the war. It might be right for readers who prefer quiet stories and simple prose, but I prefer Holocaust novels that are powerful tales of survival, whose characters feel real, and get you thinking about the real people who lost so much and must never be forgotten. The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman and The Seventh Well by Fred Wander are just a couple I would recommend instead.
I read The Violin of Auschwitz for the Literature and War Readalong at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.
Disclosure: I borrowed The Violin of Auschwitz from the public library.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.