Choices and consequences: Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall

Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna KrallThis beautiful tale of love and survival in the Holocaust had me hooked from the very first line:

She buys shoelaces for a pair of men’s shoes – such a trivial purchase.

The last four words suggest, of course, that it will prove to be anything but trivial, and this proves to be the case as Izolda meets her husband Shayek while stopping at her friend’s house to thread the new laces.

It starts a pattern which continues throughout the book, of apparently trivial decisions having major consequences. The trouble is, Izolda and Shayek being Polish Jews and this being the Warsaw Ghetto in the midst of World War Two, the consequences are often horrific.

That, for me, was the power of this book. We make decisions all the time, trivial decisions about how to spend our day or what to buy or who to visit, and for the most part it makes little difference which course we choose. But in circumstances like Izolda’s, the consequences are magnified, and trivial decisions lead to deaths, separations and arrests. Because Izolda goes to say goodbye to her friend Basia, she gets arrested, and the person hiding Shayek’s parents panics and throws them out, and they are picked up by the Nazis and shot.

There are situations like that throughout the book, and they make it a very compelling read. You never know when a chance decision will lead to something terrible. And sometimes, of course, tragedy is averted. An extraordinary series of chance events enables Izolda to survive the Warsaw Ghetto, to survive Auschwitz, to survive when survival seems impossible. It would be unbelievable if it weren’t a true story. Here’s how Izolda sums it up at one point:

…If they hadn’t taken her for a prostitute, she wouldn’t have stopped in on Mateusz the caretaker, she wouldn’t have learnt about Mauthausen, she wouldn’t have travelled to Vienna.
If she hadn’t gone to Vienna, she would have stayed in Warsaw. She would have died in the uprising, in the basement, together with her mother.
If she hadn’t escaped from Guben, they would have sent her on with the other women. She would have landed at Bergen-Belsen, in the middle of a typhus epidemic. She would have died of typhus together with Janka Tempelhof. Evidently God had decided she was meant to survive this war.
Or not. He had decided that she was meant to die and she opposed His verdict with all her strength. That’s the only reason she survived. And no God can claim credit. It was her doing and hers alone.

God features quite often throughout the book, and always in this ambiguous way. Izolda bargains with him, pleads with him, even negotiates, and yet never seems sure whether he exists or whether she’s on her own. It’s the paradox of terrible events: they drive you to seek help from God, while challenging your faith that any god can allow such things to happen in the first place. Izolda’s conversations with God seem to be on the same level as her superstitious belief that she is keeping Shayek alive by searching for him, or her friend’s fortune-telling by reading cards.

In the midst of terrible events, too, horror becomes normalised, and this is skilfully reflected in Hanna Krall’s laconic prose. After escaping the ghetto, Izolda bleaches her hair blond and tries to hide the fact that she’s Jewish. She is raped twice by policemen, and both episodes are described in very matter-of-fact style, with Izolda ending up grateful that they let her go rather than arresting her. She is so utterly powerless, and yet she keeps going, and even believes she can free Shayek from the German concentration camps.

This is slightly longer than most Peirene books, but still on the short side at 168 pages, and packs in a lot of story. In addition to the wartime scenes, it also goes on to examine how the survivors manage in differing ways to deal with the guilt of being alive when so many are dead. This is of course a subject that has been written about extensively, but Chasing the King of Hearts is such a powerful story that it’s definitely worth reading. It raises important questions about faith and fate and free will and the role of chance, and is a difficult book to put down. The only thing I didn’t love was the title – maybe it sounds better in the Polish original, but it doesn’t work for me somehow. Sounds a bit schmaltzy, which the book isn’t. Otherwise, excellent translation by Philip Boehm.

By the way, a question for those who’ve read the book: did you understand the significance of the Hebrew passages towards the end? I felt as if I was missing something important.

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There are 8 comments

  1. Thank you, Andrew, for reading and reviewing Peirene’s latest book. So wonderful to see that you review our books so regularly.
    Re the title – it’s not a literal translation from the Polish. But you are right with the ‘schmaltzy’ bit – both the translator and I – as the editor – thought about it long and hard. Hanna Krall herself describes this book as a ‘Holocaust Romance’ being of course aware of the contradiction within this term. So – on one level – the title tries to capture this. On another level the title refers to the fortune telling episode in the book and the notions of chance, possibility/impossibility, rationality/irrationality all explored within the story.
    Re Hebrew passages: I personally think this is a stroke of genius by Hanna Krall. It underlines the fact that Izolda, who speaks various languages, ends up not being able to communicate with her own family. And that no one wants to listen to hear of how she survived. And for me the end of book reaches far beyond Izolda’s story: We as humans struggle to hear or understand the past and learn from it.

    1. Hi Meike

      Thanks for visiting! It’s great to get the inside scoop on those decisions. I can certainly see the rationale for the title, and I like the tie-in with the fortune-telling elements. The idea of chance is certainly critical to the story, and it is indeed a romance, albeit a very unusual one. I think maybe it just reminded me of Princess Diana and that time when Tony Blair called her the Queen of Hearts, and that always activates my gag reflex 😉

      That makes sense about the Hebrew. The ending really did get me thinking about how we deal with the past, or often don’t deal with it. I wonder sometimes why we don’t like to hear about or learn from the past – is it just lack of interest, or do we perhaps feel threatened by hearing about a time when we didn’t even exist? Maybe we just think it’s irrelevant, because we know better and would do things differently. Anyway, I can see now how the Hebrew fits in. Thanks for the explanation!

    1. You’re welcome, Jennifer – it’s well worth reading. And yes, the cover is beautiful, as well as communicating a lot about the book: the romance, the spots of what could be blood, the tree branching off in different directions to illustrate the effects of chance and fate. I tend to think in words, so am always amazed by what a good designer can communicate in a few simple images!

  2. Wonderful review, Andrew! Initially when I started reading your review, I thought it was a novel. It is amazing that it is actually a true story. It is fascinating to think about how how small acts and decisions can impact our lives in big ways.

    1. The book certainly reads like a piece of literary fiction, Vishy, so I can understand why you’d think that. Hanna Krall is a Holocaust survivor herself but this is not her story – it was told to her by the real-life Izolda, and Krall made this book out of it. You’re right, it’s quite amazing!

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