Skeletons At the Feast, by Chris Bohjalian
(2009) This novel turns the subject of survival during the Holocaust and escape from Germany on its head. Instead of refugees fleeing from Germans, it has fascist Polish aristocrats, fleeing from Allied and Russian forces. Instead of a Jewish protagonist suffering in a death camp, it features a Jew who denies his identity in order to reach safety. Instead of an Allied soldier standing up to the enemy, one of the main characters is a Scottish prisoner of war who avoids the fighting altogether.
Simultaneously, Bohjalian places these unusual characters in the well-documented, conventional setting of the last days of Germany in WWII. This contradiction creates an unusual tension in the novel, and the reader is not quite sure whether to like the characters or feel sympathy for their plight. Even some of the Jewish prisoners of war are described as unsympathetic. He varies between profound love-scenes and idyllic descriptions of the pastoral past of the characters, and fairly prosaic, matter of fact statements about the horrors of the war and the extermination camps. In the Nobel-prize winning novel “Fateless” by Imre Kertész, the reader is swept along with, and made painfully aware of the desperate, dogmatic insistence of the main character to make sense of his circumstances and survive. In this novel, on the other hand, the motivations of the characters are given short shrift, perhaps because there are so many of them, and perhaps because they are not clearly delineated. They are grey characters, with moral dilemmas, in a time of lawlessness and confusion.
In his essay, “The Grey Zone”, Auschwitz survivor, Primo Levy, explored the less familiar moral dilemma of Jews who were implicated in the work of the Nazis. It is this idea that goes to the heart of everything Primo Levi wrote: “We, the survivors are not the true witnesses. The true witnesses, those in full possession of the terrible truth, are the drowned, the submerged, the annihilated. We speak in their stead by proxy.” Perhaps, in this novel, not the easiest or most satisfying to read, Bohjalian gives voice, by proxy, to those many thousands of people who survived by existing in the Grey Zone during the war. He might not have done this as well as Kertész, Levi, or others have, but he has brought a fresh perspective to this well-mined genre.