Friday, October 25, 2013

Living Underground by Ruth E. Walker

I get really tired of reading fiction that takes place during or in the aftermath of the Holocaust. It's not that it's not well-written, because it often is; and it's not that I'm desensitized to it or anything. I am always bawling through even the most maudlin of heartstring-tugging nonsense. It's just that there's so much of it, and it is so emotionally taxing.

Sometimes books come along that do something a little different though, and this is one of those books. It runs along some of the same themes as To Die in Spring, but definitely has some elements that you haven't seen before. This one wasn't on any of my lists of books set in Toronto; a friend of mine read it and recommended it. I'm glad he did, because it was not only a good book, but also one of the most challenging books I've read in a while - maybe since Victim Impact.

There are three stories sort of intertwined in the novel; the first (at least chronologically) is of a boy named Sigmund Maier growing up in Dresden before the war, his relationship with his mother and grandfather and neighbours, and his strange origins. The second is of grown-up Sigmund, now almost fifty, moving into a basement apartment in Toronto in the 1960s and befriending Sheila, the teenage daughter of his landlady. And the third story, where the book spends most of its time, is a grown-up Sheila in modern day Toronto being contacted by Sigmund for the first time since he skipped out and left the apartment without a word almost forty years earlier, because he needs a letter for Immigration attesting to his character. Because of course he might be a Nazi.

It's hard to say whether the story is more about Sheila's journey or Sigmund's. We spend more time with Sheila and get to know her and bits and pieces about how she came from being a sullen teenager living in near-poverty to a successful CEO of a music company, and how much of the brief time she spent with Sigmund affected that transformation. But Sigmund's story is woven throughout and it is really his choices that give the reader the most food for thought, even though exactly what he did in his life remains something of a mystery near the end.

What we are supposed to notice, I'm sure, is the similarities between the two characters - the missing father, the longing for power and control, the musical obsession. One of the themes that jumped out strongly to me was the importance of context in deciding what is good and evil (ie moral relativism, but more complicated than that). Sheila, in another time and place, might have made the decisions that Sigmund made, and might have found herself in his position. They both made morally questionable decisions to ensure their own survival. And those decisions came from the same place.

This book made me think about Nazis differently. It also made me think about rape differently. Neither more sympathetically, mind you, but I think the main effect that this novel goes for (and in my opinion, achieves) is to question absolute judgements about any unethical behaviour. Knowing the world is not black and white isn't enough, though - the novel makes you wade through the somewhat horrifying shades of grey.

I liked it. It challenged me. It wasn't my favourite story in the world, but it was very skillfully written and definitely broke new ground in the genre.

Four CN Towers out of five.

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