A miracle of compression, this latest in a series of European novellas published in English by the enterprising Peirene Press packs an emotional punch most much lengthier books can only dream of. It reads as a novel, yet it is based closely on the story of a real Izolda as recounted to the author in great detail.
In the book Izolda, like Hannah Krall herself a resident of the Warsaw ghetto under Nazi occupation, marries and promptly loses her husband Shayek to imprisonment. Determined to find and release him, she escapes from and returns to Warsaw via Vienna, Auschwitz and points in between, forever seeking news of her King of Hearts.
The style of writing, with its pared-down, matter-of-fact sentences and short chapters, deliberately evinces a lightness of tone out of all keeping with the story that unfolds. These could almost be the picaresque adventures of a naïve but resourceful young woman on a road trip, yet along the way Izolda is beaten, raped and imprisoned. Forced to adopt multiple identities, Jewish or Polish, smuggler or prostitute, messenger or nurse according to circumstance, her attractiveness for the reader stems from her resolve to survive everything the war can throw at her aided only by her wits, the kindness of strangers and the `deals' she makes with God.
This is in on one level a love story, since her love for her husband is ostensibly what gives Izolda the strength to persevere, yet that love is neither substantiated or reciprocated. Instead there is a strong sense of the arbitrary at work here, with the apparent rashness of some of Izolda's actions contrasted with other people's more rational decisions that nonetheless don't save them.
`Chasing the King of Hearts' doesn't concern itself with the statistics of horror. Instead it tells and strongly empathises with peoples' individual stories and fates. It examines how those who have lost their families and loved ones have to piece together a sense of themselves to achieve some sort of resolution / identity as the basis of their lives to follow. Izolda and Shayek fare differently in their attempts at this and the latter part of the book shows how the next generation can also struggle with deciding who they are and how and whether they can, or even should, fit into a cultural continuum.
The author's work finds a wonderful counterpart in Philip Boehm's translation - see also Herta Muller's `The Hunger Angel' or Stefan Chwin's `Death in Danzig' for confirmation of his skills.