This winter I have read three of the most shattering, startling, heartbreaking novels to have ever come my way: Hans Fallada`s Alone in Berlin, Cormac McCarthy`s The Road, and now Soazig Aaron`s mind-bending, not to mention disturbing, Refusal - Le Non de Klara in the original French; difficult to translate adequately into English, though Klara`s Refusal might have been as good if not better than the single word Barbara Bray has chosen. No other quibbles on that front as her translation as a whole is so well-judged that the reader quickly forgets it is one.
Klara, a German Jew, has returned to Paris, where she had been living before the war, having spent over two years in Auschwitz (or Oswiecim, its Polish name: Klara refuses to speak any more German) then several months wandering through Europe, including a spell in Berlin, her home city...we find out what happened when she made it to Berlin at the end of this breathless novel. Believe me, it is worth the wait.
That`s about it for `plot`. (But then, does one read The Outsider or The Castle for their plots?) Much of the book is in fact Klara`s monologue, with interjections & questions from her childhood friend Angelika who has given her a bed and a not always willing ear, as she tells her - and us - of her time in the Nazi death camp. Most of this is genuinely painful to read, stark and brutally, viscerally truthful. Klara proves a far from `sympathetic` character (the author sentimentalises nothing, for which I heartily thank her) but the unbearable memories to which she is trying to give voice rivet the attention of both her friend and the reader, as, with searing honesty, she attempts to find some kind of meaning in the terrible suffering she has endured and seen. `Closure` is not what she seeks - she`d probably punch you if you suggested such a pat way out.
Klara is barely alive, almost literally a `shadow of her former self`, and the strongest emotion her story evokes - at least in this reader - is horrified pity. I for one have seldom if ever read such a relentlessly candid portrayal of human barbarity and its effects. Once you start this novel you have to read on, because not only is it superbly written, but Klara tells truths rarely spoken in either fiction or non-fiction. They may not be everyone`s truths, but they are hers, and she has been in hell.
It all sounds pretty dour, doesn`t it? It isn`t. What it is is a work of art, a true `criticism of life`. Art worth the name can be cathartic, can teach, question, move. I was moved to tears.
After I`d read the last page of Fallada`s Alone in Berlin, I knew I`d just read one of the greatest novels I`ll ever read. When I gingerly read the last awful (in the proper sense of that word) pages of Refusal, I knew I had been privileged to enter a tragic, unresolved world made bearable by the artistry of its author, Soazig Aaron. I urge anyone to get hold of this uniquely urgent, brave novel. It will make you think and feel! It has things to say that you might not want to hear, but you may well be glad you took the trouble.