Sunday, 21 February 2016

Unspeakable Things by Kathleen Spivack

A strange, haunting novel about survival and love in all its forms; about sexual awakenings and dark secrets; about European refugee intellectuals who have fled Hitler’s armies with their dreams intact and who have come to an elusive new (American) “can do, will do” world they cannot seem to find. A novel steeped in surreal storytelling and beautiful music that transports its half-broken souls—and us—to another realm of the senses. 

The setting: the early 1940s, New York—city of refuge, city of hope, with the specter of a red-hot Europe at war.

From the Goodreads description 

Unspeakable Things is a dark (very dark) and amazing book, both disturbing and beautiful. Although this is a book about the Holocaust and its consequences the unspeakable things in the title are for the most part sexual abuse rather than violent death. The phrase "Unspeakable Things" is first used in the book by the Russian countess Anna to describe what happens to her at the hands of Rasputin, who is called The Devil. Anna is a tiny woman with a  humpback and a long nose and whiskers growing out of a facial mole, which have earned her the nickname “the Rat.” But her "deformity" seems to attract the perverted attentions of not only the mad monk but also the German doctor Felix, a Nazi fetishist and asexual predator on the young children brought to him by their Jewish mothers. Note: if the subject of sexual perversion is difficult for you, do not read this book. 

But Anna is also genuinely loved by her cousin Herbert, the book's central character. Herbert is a fixer, who uses his connections and possibly magical powers, to bring fellow Jews out of Europe. He however cannot save everyone, in particular his youngest son Michael, and the gypsies of Europe. There is a cost for survival and the cost to Herbert is his son's loss and his wife's resulting madness. This is the central theme of the book - the cost and guilt of survival. It is in the context that the sexuality of the book should be seen. How do you deal with the unspeakable things that have happened to you and others, with the scars that are burned into your soul, and in Anna's case literally into your skin, by the devilish hands of others?
Hands play an important part in the story - Rasputin's devilish hand prints are burnt onto Anna's inner thighs, Herbert's wife is a pianist whose hands feverishly play on her bedsheet, and in a jar in Felix's fridge the severed little fingers of the Tolstoi Quartet tap out Schubert melodies. The jar of fingers are part of Felix's bizarre experiment in genetic engineering sponsored by the Fuhrer himself. Fed on a diet of good Teutonic foods (wurst etc), the fingers are being engineered to produce pure Germanic music. As you might be able to see from this, there are elements of satire and humour in this novel alongside the darkness I have written about above.

There are also passages of sublime beauty in the book. This is a writer who is also a poet and it shows. As in a poem it is important to understand that nearly everything is a metaphor and has more than one meaning. The severed fingers are metaphors for the exiles in New York, severed forcibly from their birthplace and confined in cramped single-room lodgings. Music pervades the book. Out on the streets of New York there are new "optimistic" rhythms and music, but the exiles are waltzing to the old tunes. The only way for the survivors to come to terms with their continued existence is to let go of the dead and for the dead to let go of them.  

I received this book free from the publisher in return for a fair review

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