I’m a very big fan of Philippe Claudel’s writing (beautifully translated in this case by Julian Evans). He deals with topics I’m interested in (history, memory, guilt), and while his subject matter is, at heart, very specific, his stories have a haunting, timeless quality about them that makes them feel like dark fairytales, as if they could be set anywhere, even someplace imaginary.
But—in this case especially—they’re very much not set someplace imaginary. These five short stories are set in Germany, and they all deal in one way or another with the Holocaust. I’m fascinated by how Claudel takes such an understated approach to such an overwhelming topic. He leaves a great deal unsaid, and yet all the horrors of that subject matter infuse the short, stark sentences in these short, stark stories. And I suspect that the more history you already know, the more the horror here is on full display.
Case in point: The middle story in this collection is set in early post-reunification Germany (1995), and it focuses on a bored, self-centered teenager who takes a job in a nursing home and treats her charge very badly indeed (in a way that links back to the first story in the book - which, in turn, is linked to the last). The story is bleak and chilling in it’s own right, but there’s another layer of meaning to it that I haven’t seen mentioned in any other reviews of this book. The title of this story is “Irma Grese”. Irma Grese was a real woman - she was a female concentration camp guard in Ravensbrück, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. She was referred to as the “Beast of Belsen” for her sadistic cruelty, and she was executed for her crimes after the war, at the age of just 22. You don’t need to know this to be affected by Claudel’s short story, but if you do know it, then the story takes on an entirely different dimension - and I feel like the same holds true for much of Claudel’s work.
But even if you’re not a history buff there’s a lot to recommend this slim volume. With a very economical style, Claudel conjures up dark worlds that stay with you for a long time.