Reviewed by Peter Webb
Alison Pick’s Far to Go joins a recent spate of Holocaust-themed works seeking to address how the descendants of death camp victims have tried to deal with the horrific legacy they inherited at birth. Set in the Sudetenland and Prague during the Nazi invasions of 1938-39, Pick’s novel has affinities with the better-known work of Eva Hoffman, who in After Such Knowledge (2004) articulates the “paradoxes of indirect knowledge” that “haunt many of us who came after... threatening sometimes to overshadow and overwhelm our own lives” (25). Pick would likely agree with Hoffman’s assessment of how “mediated forms of knowledge” (25) complicate the process of healing. On the one hand, children of Holocaust victims are lucky to be alive; on the other hand, permanent grief and loss of familial relationships disrupt the joys of life.
Pick’s narrator, Lisa, born in 1940, now a retired academic, appreciates her mixed fortune. Her family died in the Holocaust while she survived into old age. Her work as a social historian of the period helps her to maintain a balance between traumatized emotions and intellectual responsibilities. Yet “a poison never fully flushed out” (139) continues to run through her veins.
Even more complicated is the situation of her older sibling, Joseph (nicknamed Pepik), who escapes Nazi-occupied Prague aboard one of Nicholas Winton’s Kindertransports to Scotland. Rejected by his adoptive family and cut-off from contact with his parents and beloved nanny back home, Joseph falls into a liminal position between victim and survivor that leaves him suspended in time, like a sufferer of amnesia. His reunion with Lisa in Montreal long after the war (neither knew each other’s fate for decades) provides a measure of solace for both characters. Yet the weight of the past is not lightened and the shadows of grief do not fade.
The central and most compelling aspect of Far to Go is a framed narrative in the form of Lisa’s reconstructed account of life shortly before the war. The Bauers are non-practicing Sudeten Jews, owners of a successful factory until the Nazis expropriate the premises. Fleeing to as-yet unoccupied Prague, the Bauers re-establish themselves until Nazi incursion and betrayal by a false friend cast them back into chaos. Husband and wife, Pavel and Anneliese, emotionally incompatible from the start, grow ever more estranged over disagreements in the midst of crisis. Pepik’s devoted nanny, Marta, gradually assumes a greater influence in the family out of mutual compassion and respect. Because Marta is a working-class Gentile in the employment of middle-class Jews, her affinities with the family constitute a quiet defiance against the social and religious boundaries enforced by Nazi ideology. There is much more to the relationship than that, but I would ruin too many intriguing twists by discussing it here.
Pick is a skillful author of character-driven drama, although the dialogue in Far to Go suffers from idiomatic anachronisms—phrases such as “news flash” (159) and “done deal” (160) would likely be unknown to characters in a pre-television society—that poke holes through the membrane of history. Occasional forays into sentiment, along with a couple of “bad sex in fiction” moments, cause minor irritations in an otherwise well-drawn story. Matters of the heart, an overriding concern in Far to Go, are a little hard to stomach when they unfold behind well-latched doors that protect the Bauers from the beatings and murders taking place in the streets.
Still, there is wisdom in Pick’s choice not to make Far to Go a conventional recreation of Nazi raids, ghettos, concentration camps, and mass murder. Survivors such as Tadeusz Borowski, Primo Levi, Władysław Szpilman, and Elie Wiesel have left searing eyewitness accounts of Nazi persecution that later authors, raised in peace and safety, are unlikely to surpass. Pick has no pretensions to augment or interpolate the literary testimony of survivors. Rather, her work joins Hoffman’s—and more self-consciously postmodern figures like Anne Michaels and W.G. Sebald—in constructing new ways to evoke the Holocaust without pretending to understand the horror.
Far to Go is a worthwhile and accomplished, if not flawless, novel. It deserves a place alongside Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces as a contemporary narrative helping to keep alive the memory of a time and event that the world has no business forgetting.
About the Author
At press time: Peter Webb is Faculty Lecturer in Canadian Literature in the McGill University Department of English. His research on war-related subjects has appeared in the Journal of Canadian Studies and essay collections from DeGruyter Press and the University of Ottawa Press. He is the editor of the recently published volume From Room to Room: The Poetry of Eli Mandel from Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Work on a book about Canadian First World War fiction is ongoing.