Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Far to Go by Alison Pick

Either way, when I think of the human potential stolen, of the millions of little lights snuffed out, I can't help but wish that the living, at least, would embrace what was taken from the dead.

Far To Go is the interweaving of two stories - a current narrative which overlaps a historical one. The present day narrator is an elderly woman whose identity I can't reveal because the reader doesn't learn this until almost the end of the novel. The past narrative is the dominant one of the book and recounts the story of a Jewish Czech couple, Pavel and Annelise Bauer who are living in the Sudetenland in 1938 and who struggle to survive in the rapidly deteriorating conditions prior to the Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland and the beginning of World War II. It is told by the Bauer's governess, Marta Mueller, 23 years of age, who comes from a troubled background.

Pavel and Annelise live with their son, Pepik, in a small town in the Sudetenland, where they own a factory built by Pavel's father. Pavel, whose father fought for the Germans in World War I, is a Czech nationalist. Pavel is the eternal optimist while Anneliese is emotionally distant, fashionable and more practical.

The Bauer's story, as told by Marta, opens with ominous indications that the Germans will occupy the Sudetenland, which they lost after World War I. Czech Jews are beginning to experience the effects of marginalization, their factories and businesses are being occupied,  including Pavel's factory. Other Jews are beaten to death or attacked. Anneliese wants to leave while they still can, but Pavel refuses, saying that they must "live what we believe in". Because Pavel insists upon staying, Anneliese decides to take matters into her own hands and does something that drives a permanent wedge between her and Pavel.

Eventually, the family along with many other refugees, relocates to Prague amid further chaos, in the belief that Czechoslovakia will safe. They are mistaken and as the crisis intensifies, they see their options slowly dwindle and eventually disappear. Unable to obtain the necessary exit visas and travel permits, in desperation, the Bauers make a decision that changes their lives forever. They decide to try to get Pepik onto the Kindertransport out of Czechoslovakia to safety in Britain.

Within Pavel and Anneliese's story is that of Marta. Marta is sexually involved with Ernst Anselm, a married man and Pavel's assistant at the factory. But Marta learns that Ernst is not loyal to Pavel and is a Nazi sympathizer. In fact, he is a sadistic and cruel man who thinks only of himself. Marta is a complex person, undecided about who to be loyal to and quite frightened of being abandoned. She has no family and is terrified she will be left behind by the Bauers, whatever they decide to do. Ernst warns her that she will ultimately have to choose and soon. Marta experiences great conflict, changing her mind frequently based on what happens in the Bauer household. The choices Marta makes directly impact the Bauers, in ways she could not have fathomed resulting in tremendous guilt. However, this guilt never seems to really impact how Marta behaves. She simply does what she feels she needs to - perhaps what many people do in dire situations.

Interwoven, infrequently with the Bauer's story, is the present day story told by an elderly narrator who is a Holocaust researcher by the name of Lisa. Among her many areas of research, Lisa also has studied the Kindertransport. The Kindertransport was a program in which Jewish children were sent out of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Germany to safety in Britain. It began after the pogrom of November 9 and 10, 1938, known as Kristallnacht.  Lisa is trying to make contact with someone, a person she has spent her entire life looking for. Finally, after all her years of hard work, cutting through the reticence of Holocaust survivors to share their stories, she has managed to locate this one person whom she has more than a passing connection to. Lisa sets up a meeting with this survivor which eventually reveals to the reader how all the narratives fit together -the past finally catching up to the present.

Overall, the writing in this novel is brilliant and eloquent. It's difficult not to read the Bauer's story and feel a sense of impending doom and overwhelming tragedy. We know that if the Bauer's don't act quickly, it will be too late and we know what lies in their future. Their story is all the more poignant because as Europe careens towards war, their relationship unravels, the result of personal tragedy, personal loss, betrayal and the developing crisis in Czechoslovakia. There is tragedy on many levels too - ethnic, national and personal.

One aspect that Pick is exceptional at depicting in her book is the gradual descent of Europe as a region and also on an individual level, bit by bit into racial hatred and war.  This is especially well demonstrated by the character of Ernst, who whispers to Marta, asking her if she's noticed whether Jews smell.When he blurts this out during one of their clandestine meetings, he immediately retracts it. He's not sure what he should or should not say. Later on Ernst talks about how he's is beginning to feel that Germany and the Sudetenland would be better off without Jews and that it's not about religion but race. While Marta doesn't know what she believes, she does make a point of noting whether or not Pavel smells. However Ernst is an opportunist, or maybe worse yet, a predator. He begins to actively try to seize all of the Bauer's assets. But he still has a glimmer of conscience when he appeals to Marta for affirmation. 
"He was more uncertain than he was letting on, about  his feelings towards the Jews and how his old friend Pavel might fit in with them. He wanted to be bolstered, reassured. Ernst too, Marta realized, felt guilty. Even if he himself was unaware of it."

Pick keeps her readers engaged by the ongoing mystery of the identity of the book's narrator and her connection to the Bauer family. It works well and creates a multi-faceted story that holds till the very end. Far To Go is a unique blend of historical fiction with modern mystery. There are themes of identity, loss, and betrayal throughout. A few unnecessary items creep into the story but overall a brilliantly conceived piece of story-telling.

For more information on the Kindertransport please check out the Kindertransport Association website at

Listen to Oliver Gebhardt, an 8 year old German Jew who left his mother and grandmother and was placed on a Kindertransport to Britain.

Book Details:
Far To Go by Alison Pick
Toronto: House of Anasi Press    2011
314 pp.

No comments: