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Hotel Baalbek

Hôtel Baalbek - Fred Wander I bought this book in Dussman in Berlin a couple of years ago because it was on their Recommendations shelf (Lese Tipp), yet I am the first one to review it in GR, which says something about how, in spite of GR’s international growth, the site still remains very “Anglo”. I wanted to thank Karen for uploading the front cover. Anyway, can one like, or dislike, a book that deals with the Holocaust, even if it does so at a sort of distance, as if behind the scenes? Hôtel Baalbek is set in its namesake hotel in Marseille in July 1942. This hotel is the place where a series of immigrants, mostly Jewish, are lodging as they wait, dream and hope for an exit out of France before the Germans occupy the country fully. To say that the setting is July 1942 (in fact, on the 14th, France’s National Day) is sort of misleading, since the narrator (who does not have a name but who is one of the immigrants – the author?), jumps backwards and forwards in time repeatedly. This has a weird and disorienting effect. On the one hand it diminishes some of the anxiety since we know that at least the narrator survives, but also accentuates an unnerving feeling of foreboding. What is the essence of the tragic after all, but the unrelenting approach to expected fatality? There is not much of a story in Hôtel Baalbek. Rather, it presents us a gallery of people with different destinies waiting for them. Some succeed in escaping, some commit suicide, some go under and join the “résistance”, some are caught and assassinated on the spot, some are caught and taken to the camps and die, some are caught and taken to the camps and survive. One of this last, (luckier?), groups is obviously the narrator. Hôtel Baalbek is signed by Fred Wander, but the writer’s real name was Fritz Rosenblatt. He was an Austrian writer who moved from Vienna to France in 1938, then escaped to Switzerland and was caught there by the Germans (yes, by the Nazis in Switzerland) and sent to Auschwitz first and then Buchenwald. He survived both the foot march and his stay in both places. His dates are 1917-2006. His march into hell obviously marked him, and he chose the verb of walking aimlessly as his pen-name, the wandering jew. After the war he settled in the GDR but eventually moved to Vienna before the fall of the Eastern Block. He was a journalist rather than a novelist, although he would have preferred to be considered the opposite. Hôtel Baalbek, together with the more famous The Seventh Well, are the only books of fiction (fiction?) that he left behind. Yes, because fiction this book does not seem to be. It has a very strong flavor of an autobiographical account. From the little I have been able to learn from Wander’s life, many incidents of the book seem to match his life, even the capture of the narrator in Switzerland by the Nazis. And this takes me to the loss of the fifth star in my rating, and the liking issue. This mixing of reality and fiction in an account related to the Holocaust seems to me very dangerous. In fact, I have come to feel a strong revulsion against novels and other works of fiction set in those terrifying times. Do not mistake me, this is very far from the dreadful genre of sentimental, endearing and schmaltzy novels such as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and the not as awful but still pretty terrible The Book Thief. But I would have preferred a fully recognized autobiographical account. To introduce uncertainty in this category of writing is dangerous, if not reprehensible. The DTV paperback edition has an interesting Postface by Erich Hackl. In it, Hackl discusses Wander’s disconcerting handling of time, which if not in the same category of the Modernists more contrived experiments with the structure of the novel, has a similar aim to recreate a nebulous human consciousness and our living in a mixed perception of past and present. I am enclosing the link to the NYT review of his The Seventh Well. I am not sure I have the strength to read it. It deals with the experiences of living, dying or surviving, in the concentration camp. It is also fashioned as a novel. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/books/review/Hoffman-t.html

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