Saturday, 13 July 2013

blood from the sky [piotr rawicz]

Piotr Rawicz committed suicide at the age of 60. Suicide is often seen as a desperate, tragic event, but to those who survived the Holocaust, such as Levi, Borowski  and more, perhaps it felt like a blessing to be able to have dominion over the moment of your death, unlike so many others. Blood From the Sky does not deal with Rawicz’s time in the camps. Rather it follows the misadventures of his alter-ego, Boris, as he seeks to escape the Nazi net as Jews were rounded up in his native Ukraine.

Boris is atypical. He’s blond. He doesn’t look Jewish and has few problems passing himself of as a native Ukrainian. He is a descendant of aristocratic stock and has reserves of cash. As the whole of his town is rounded up, he escapes with a girlfriend. It’s made clear that Boris is not a one-woman man, something that gives his relationship with the understandably jealous Naomi even more pathos.  Together they drift around the country, getting by, constantly moving on, before Boris is finally picked up and identified as a Jew through the absence of a foreskin.

The book is split into three parts. The first takes place in Boris’ hometown, where the horrors are a blend of Artaud and Kafka, the flip side of Litttel’s The Kindly Ones. There, we are also offered an insight into the world which is in the process of being annihilated, with flashbacks to Boris’ louche youth. It’s an unromantic account. Boris spares no-one as he describes how people were happy to deceive themselves as they scrambled for the right to survive, only later finding out the worthlessness of money or influence. The second section of the book deals with his peregrinations through the country, and the last is the account of his arrest.

One wonders why this work of Holocaust literature is not better known. There must be reasons why Rawicz’s novel has not been praised in the same way as the work of Levi, remaining obscure. It may well have something to do with the unsettling, semi-cynical tone of the book. At times Blood from the Sky truly reads like a horror movie. It has moments which are grotesque, blood-curdling. The nobility the reader might hope to find in order to lend a retrospectively life-affirming slant to events is more or less absent. Instead, the author delights in subverting his anti-hero, Boris, a subversion he himself joins in with. The irony that his whole fate depends on the presence or absence of a foreskin is not lost on him, with two of the chapters being titled “The Tool and the Art of the Comparison” and “The Tool and the Thwarting of Comparison”. There’s a grittiness to Rawicz’s prose which refutes sentimentality and refuses to let the reader settle. The author appears to be fully conscious of the degree to which his experiences have damaged him, and wants the reader to sense this through his complex prose and unyielding capacity to look the horror straight in the eye.

The further it recedes into history, the more the Holocaust emerges as a sign, or a symbol, one which can be appropriated at will be storytellers (see Scorsese, Benigni etc). All to often, this leads to a dissolution of the reality of what happened. (Something Littel’s novel was clearly seeking to counteract). Rawicz’s neglected novel shakes the reader out of their comfort zone. It feels as though it is almost written in spite of itself. At one point, early in the book, Boris is told by his community leader that he has a duty to act as a witness to events, and the book honours that call to duty. However, this is a writer who also seems conscious of the absurdity of trying to write about what he has witnessed. There is a paradox in that, in the act of documenting, the storyteller inevitably reduces events, converting them from the real to signs on a piece of paper, signs which can never do justice to that which has been lived. Hence, Rawicz both accepts and reacts against the role of witness. He guards his right to cynicism in order to retain his individuality in the face of the machine which sought to annihilate it. Perhaps the choice of a suicide, exercised by so many survivors, was a similar act of paradoxical self-affirmation. 

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