Sunday, October 28, 2012

JD's Review of 'The Kommandant's Mistress' by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman

Human, Frighteningly Human

Many books have been written about the Holocaust and there is a danger that at some point desensitisation sets in. But not with this work.

The structure of the novel is unconventional and the narrative flows back and forward over time without any break in the stream of consciousness of the two central characters.

The writing has a ‘European’ feel to it, and stylistically the book read to me like a concatenation of Sartre’s Roads to Freedom and Camus’ The Fall.

At the heart of The Kommandant’s Mistress is the relationship between Maximilian Ernst von Walther, the officer in charge of a World War II extermination camp and Rachel, a young Jewish woman selected by the German to gratify his baser instincts. Along the way Alexandria Szeman explores the hysteria of Nazism and peels back the layers of the phenomenon that turned ordinary people into murderous and inhuman fanatics.

The writing is brutal and unsentimental. Rachel’s humiliations and abuses are described with forensic objectivity, but so is the Kommandant’s moral disintegration and self-delusion. Even the most evil acts are balanced with an underlying sense of human anguish. Scenes of domesticity are set alongside horrific portrayals of degeneracy. In places, Szeman’s detachment is both terrifying and moving at the same time.

A sense of moral ambiguity permeates the book so thoroughly that even the ending is ambivalent, and the reader is left with choosing for himself what is ‘true’ from the different viewpoints presented. Von Walther is monstrous, certainly, but he is not an alien monster, and it says much for Szeman’s skill that there are times when one feels genuine sympathy for him.

The Kommandant’s Mistress is not an easy book, but it most certainly a worthwhile one. For this reason, it gets my vote as the best work of fiction I have read this year.

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