March Book of the Month- I Have Lived A Thousand Years by Livia Bitton-Jackson

We think we know. Or at least that we can imagine: the terror that struck their hearts, the fear that perpetrated every dream, the weight of their sorrows.

If there is anything to illustrate just to what extent the present is ignorant of the past’s sufferings, then this is the book to do it. An autobiography, I Have Lived A Thousand Years is the shocking retelling of Bitton-Jackson’s experience of two years under Nazi rule, as a Jew. We have all heard the stories of concentration camps, seen images and even visited them. But until you have absorbed the description of someone who suffered, you will never skim the surface of understanding what life was like during the Nazi regime. Having been subject to work at Dachau and Auchwitz, there are countless, gruesome recollection of days without water and food. Where she was forced to march for miles, leaving trails of red as pieces glass drove deeper into their bare feet. It is, to say the least, a raw and uncensored account, and rightfully so. Just be warned that it can be incredibly emotional.

livia

In concise detail, Bitton-Jackson writes about the most influential and momentous experiences of her childhood. After growing up in a small town in Hungary, one day the streets are overwhelmed with Nazi attitudes. It spirals, scarily fast, out of control. By reflecting on the events of the past, it reminds what a great distortion of reality we actually have, how the peace we bathe in every day is no more concrete than the placated moods of the global leaders. So, the message is, don’t take it for granted.

co

By reading this book, you will perpetrate, as much as any of us can, the reality of the concentration camps. The way that everyday could be the last- the fact that there were teams of Jews forced to drag their friends’ bodies out of the gas chambers, to pick out their gold teeth, unpeel whatever could possibly be of value from their bodies. The pointless violence. The train journeys, with the final destination intangible. The days so long, I could feel Bitton-Jackson’s despair penetrating through the pages. The bodies staggering as plumes of blood dotted their shirts, after the prisoners clamoured around the trains’ window to collect soup from the Red Cross during one of the stationary periods of the train journey. Except, of course, it wasn’t the Red Cross. It was the Nazis, using Red Cross vans, and even bowls of soup, as a lure to get the Jews to come to the window so that they be shot more easily.

It was a horrific read.

In a way, Anne Frank’s diary is the perfect prequel to this. Of course, they lived on different sides of the continent, but both were young teenage girls, and whilst Frank recalls the conditions of her concealment, Bitton-Jackson tells of her experience of what followed. In my opinion, I Have Lived A Thousand Years should be considered as classic a war read as Frank’s Diary, because it is one the few books to tell the story of a survivor, and reads well too. I would recommend this to anyone interested in history, current affairs or simply a gripping, emotional read. In many ways, it’s much more engrossing than a novel, and what better way to honour the deaths of so many millions, than by understanding the conditions of their deaths?

Advertisements

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

My ideal holiday is one where I’m always busy- reading. On my annual trip to Italy, the days are spent sprawled in a sun lounger, watermelon slices gradually turning tepid due to neglect and heat, and noses shamelessly inserted between pages. I chose to immerse myself in Catch-22 and explore Heller’s most prestigious work. It wasn’t your typical holiday read, a novel that you could ooze into as you slowly inflated on pizza, but nevertheless I undertook the challenge. It was a challenge. I was required to adopt a surgeon’s precision, trying to peel apart the meaning behind each sentence. So although I couldn’t fall into a typical holiday induced mental slumber, there were benefits: I would finally be able to nod my head, and smile genuinely, when people spoke airily of that old novel. Oh, and the  phrase ‘Catch-22’ would have 518 pages of context behind it.

catch

In a way, this novel did help me let go…of my preconceived notion that plot is essential to a novel, and made me stop fishing around Heller’s chapters for sense. It’s a confusing read. Yet I will try to sum up the thread I could identify; Yossarian, the protagonist, serves as an American pilot in 1944, on the island Pianosa. He is terrified by the prospect of death, with the clear attitude that “the enemy is anybody who is going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on.” Yes, there is a paranoid edginess throughout. And not only that, but the sense of desperation Yossarian has to flee the country and find refuge from the violence and imminent threat of death. It’s not a surprise, really. All around him is friends are either flying, dying or decaying, and then hurriedly forgotten.

Yossarian is a typical anti-hero, perhaps one of the most notable of the 20th century. He continually attempts to escape his military duty and is perching on the end on the coil of sanity. He is not particularly inspiration, being one of the 20th century’s greatest anti-hero, as he is willing to abandon his comrades in order to save himself. But he does ignite laughter. And that is crucial, because the humour in Catch-22 was one of the few things that made it bearable. Another thing which was engaging, and lightened the tone made damp by the subject of war, were the colourful exploits of Yossarian abroad. Whenever he left Pianosa for a holiday trip, miniature adventures would ensue; the brief escapades were brimming with action, and the characters cameoing were marvellously outrageous. Imagine: Yossarian chasing a girl throughout the streets of Rome, ducking into restaurants and racing through streets frantically- of course this is going to be more interesting than his monologues and moaning in the field.

But the novel is not as straight forward as that, unfortunately. The events take place non chronologically, and there is never any indication that the time period has changed, or is about to. So that was initially a struggle for me to comprehend, and I found it unconformable to read as I was unaware of what was actually taking place. But Catch-22 hasn’t been sold more than 10 million times for it’s perplexity. The language is exceptional, gouged from a scholar’s thoughts. The style and syntax is alien to what we’re accustomed to today, but I can only see this as an opportunity to examine 1960s literature, and to expand my vocabulary! Having said that, some of the words were so unbelievably long and complex, that I thought that the only reason Heller put them there was to be pretentious, but still.

On the whole, I think that this is a novel worth reading, yet only once. As you know, I am an avid reader, and even I had to set myself daily benchmarks to force myself to persevere  through the literal sludge. 100 pages a day normally isn’t too ambitious, yet I was reading for 3 hours a day and just about managed to stumble through the pages in that time. Of course, I could have meandered through the novel, picking it up when I felt the urge, but that approach relied on you wanting to read the novel, at all, in the first place. And although I was starting to enjoy Catch-22 by the end, the deep madness and blatant contradictions were a constant challenge. But an unique novel is going to tough, is it not? The perspective on war is much less poetic than other novels, and fills you with a sense of the massive impact the conflict had on everyone’s life. For us, 6 years in history seems like nothing, merely a couple of words in a sentence, referring to something decades ago. But in this novel, you can see that everyday was signifcant, something they had to suffer through, ponder continually Is this the day I will die? So take the plunge, and challenge yourself. The waters are icy, but by the end you’ll acclimatise, and in although it’ll feel like a gruelling experience at the time, when you look back you’ll smile.