Reviewed by Željka Černok in SBR 2015:2
Review Section: Fiction - Adult
There are different ways to write about the Holocaust. There are novels that describe the horrors in maximum detail, to bring the protagonists’ terrible fate as close as possible to the reader. One example is Steve Sem-Sandberg’s critically acclaimed The Emperor of Lies, which won the Swedish August Prize in 2009 and has since been translated into more than 20 languages. However, the focus in such novels necessarily lies on historical accuracy and well-researched details, while the characters are very rarely depicted as individuals in their own right; rather, they appear to be just victims. In Herr Isakowitz’s Treasure, Danny Wattin takes a different approach. His novel is driven by the characters, with the war looming in the background. Wattin tells the stories of individual people in those terrible times.
It is the story of his own family. His grandparents on both sides were Holocaust survivors. Some other members of the family also managed to escape and live out their lives in all four corners of the world, while others had less luck.Wattin’s book is about real people. Some were nice, others quite the opposite, but what they all had in common was that they had to deal with appalling experiences. How they managed that is the subject of the book. These stories are retold to the third generation living in Sweden, who, as is inevitable at two removes, cannot fully grasp the reality of what happened, even though they comprehend it intellectually.
The story is framed in a splendidly quirky way, based on a family legend of a great-grandfather who buried a treasure in his garden before disappearing. The author’s eight-year old son insists they have to go and look for it, so three generations of Wattins – the author, his son and his father – decide to go off to Poland on a treasure hunt. Wonderfully warm and funny scenes involving bickering in the car and misunderstandings between generations are interspersed with stories about the lives of different family members, some extinguished quickly and incomprehensibly, while others were saved by chance, a bit of luck, or sheer cheek.
This approach might not meet everyone’s expectations, as we are used to reading books about the Holocaust in which Jewish people are portrayed as a group of anonymous victims to feel sorry for. The fact that some readers found this book ‘disrespectful’ did not surprise me. We are all so accustomed to reading stories about the Holocaust with a grandiose musical soundtrack in our heads to make us cry at just the right moment, carefully planned by the writer. This book is refreshingly free of all of that. I laughed at the descriptions of people, I cried at a picture of a coathanger (yes!) and I continued to think about the book long after finishing it. It is just wonderful: funny and sad, warm and wise, without trying too hard to be any of these things. A true little gem.