The rage of the totalitarian state never ebbs, but the pace at which it kills can vary, sometimes being spasms of spontaneous-seeming violence, sometimes a slower, relentless closing of the trap.

Ludwig Pollak, a Jew in German-occupied Rome in late 1943 and the central figure in Hans von Trotha’s Pollak’s Arm, is a man around whom the jaws of that trap are poised—ready to snap shut.1 This quietly powerful, closely written book (which was first published in Germany in 2021 and has been translated into English by Elisabeth Lauffer) consists of, at the bottom of its many layers, Pollak’s reaction to his predicament, to his likely fate, and to a last-minute chance to escape it. It is also a lament for a lost world and, perhaps, a reassurance that its essence will somehow endure, an ambiguity well suited to the shadows, literal and figurative, that lengthen as von Trotha’s story proceeds.

This book is enveloped by a profound sense of the tragic and of foreboding.

This book is enveloped by a profound sense of the tragic and of foreboding, and to find out that Pollak, who was born in 1868, really lived (von Trotha had access to his papers and diaries, as well as unpublished letters), well . . .

Superficially this work has the appearance of a chamber piece (it is less than a hundred fifty pages long and essentially revolves around one conversation and a conversation about that conversation) but ends up as something infinitely grander. It is also a book in which the tension builds and builds, not only an absorbing and deeply moving read, but, to put it crassly, a page-turner: I finished it in one sitting.

The narrative opens with a retired prelate and ecclesiastical diplomat, Monsignor F., talking to a German, known only as K. The latter is a teacher, reluctant to return to a war-torn Reich, who is being harbored in the Holy See, still allowed to exist as a neutral enclave within a Rome that Hitler’s army has made its own since Mussolini fell and Italy changed sides.

It is October 17, 1943. Two days earlier, the monsignor sent K. to tell Pollak—someone who has been on good terms with the Vatican for decades—that he and his family were welcome to take refuge within its boundaries. There had been persistent reports that the Germans were planning to round up Rome’s Jews on the next day, the Sabbath naturally. Neither Pollak’s prominence nor his intellectual credentials will be, as the papal authorities understand, enough to save him. Genocide is nothing if not thorough.

K. describes arriving in Pollak’s apartment, “the home of a collector,” “everything . . . simply exquisite, down to the last detail.” But “some pieces were missing . . . I noticed gaps on shelves, spots on the wall where something once hung, dark shadows where something once sat, outlines where something once stood.”

But the collector does not respond to the offer of asylum as eagerly as K. expects. K. stresses the urgency of the situation, but, to his amazement, Pollak, although aware of the danger he faces, wants instead to talk, is unwilling even to wake his wife and children:

Their sleeping makes me happy. . . . We have so few reasons to be awake, you see. They may have fewer reasons even than I. At least I have my memories.

And what memories he has, precisely, perfectly, ocasionally emotionally retold. Of his childhood and youth in Prague, of the beginnings of his fascination with relics of the past, of an earlier home, another palazzo, “paradise, whoever your god,” where he moved in 1903, a place for collectors like him, collectors he had hosted (“like-minded people. You understand”). He talks of collections he has catalogued. He is, to K., either uncaring or unprepared to acknowledge that they all need to be back in the Vatican by nightfall, before curfew, soon.

Pollak’s memories unspool: the cataloguing of a collection belonging to Alexander Nelidov, the Russian ambassador, and then those of others; the work that makes his name, with all that follows—honorary membership of the German Archaeological Institute (“a Jew. Can you imagine?”), appointment as an advisor to Emperor Franz Josef, decorations from the czar and the pope, gifts from J. P. Morgan. He lives in his Rome, “a famous archaeologist, esteemed scholar, sought-after consultant and successful [antiquities] dealer,” and he catalogues collection after collection, operating, K. learns, in a “realm of connoisseurs—geniuses in the shadows, concert masters playing second fiddle. A world of secret competition between largely unknown giants.”

“As far,” K. recalls, “as Pollak is concerned, both building a collection and cataloguing it are forms of art.” The catalogue is Pollak’s calling, a way of imposing order on a “bewildering world,” “his way of leaving a tangible legacy of answers, not just questions.” Perhaps that is what the elderly sage is doing, as he talks and talks, ignoring or oblivious to K.’s agitation as the minutes tick by, describing his life, what he has seen, his thoughts, observations, and conclusions, sporadically accompanied by the display of some item, a book, medal, some Goethe memorabilia: “One must tell stories. One must write them down. One must ensure that memories remain, so that others might remember when you no longer can.”

As a citizen of the Habsburg Empire, Pollak had to leave his “beloved” Rome, just ahead of Italy’s entering the First World War on the side of the Entente.

But then the twentieth century comes crashing in. As a citizen of the Habsburg Empire, Pollak had to leave his “beloved” Rome, just ahead of Italy’s entering the First World War on the side of the Entente. Pollak was conscripted in Vienna, while his collections were sequestered in Rome. Eventually he returned to his terra benedetta, but legal battles over his collections and the sour aftertaste of the war lingered on. It was quite some time before he felt secure enough in Italy to buy two holiday houses in the mountains near Bolzano (Bozen), a revealing choice, although Pollak makes no comment about it. The properties would have been in a slice of Austria annexed by Italy in 1919, a German-speaking territory, an obvious choice for someone who has always “revered the language, indeed all things German.” He is the personification of the last of the old Mitteleuropa now being consigned to the flames. To Pollak, “Goethe is culture, Prague is home, and Judaism is [his] destiny,” a remark that is not the only clue Pollak might feel obliged to share fully in that destiny, however horrific it could turn out to be.

The Prague of Pollak’s early years was one in which Czech was on the ascendant and German in the retreat. “[T]hree quarters of the Germans” in the city “were Jewish. Their devotion to the language . . . touching to behold.” They were “standard bearers of Germanness,” something held against them then, and something that, decades later, will not save them.

Time is passing, and “without any lights on to ward off the advance of dusk in the apartment, colors were gradually fading and contours losing definition.”

The talk turns, as it must, to the achievement for which Pollak was (and is) best known, his discovery of Laocoön’s missing right arm from the ancient statue of the Trojan priest and his sons being attacked by sea serpents. These creatures had been sent by Athena, enraged after Laocoön had done his best to warn his fellow Trojans that the strange wooden horse left behind by the Greeks might be a trick. After the statue, which still stands today in the Vatican, was rediscovered in 1506, it was given a replacement right arm, outstretched heroically skyward, a suitably inspirational message, the depiction of someone “rearing himself up against destiny.” But, says Pollak, “there is no standing up to destiny.”

And, Rome, he adds, “has long since succumbed to the sea serpents. . . . the snake always wins. Laocoön teaches us that. Man will never win against serpents sent by the gods. Not in this world.”

The arm, which Pollak presented to the Vatican, was bent back, almost twisted, the arm of a victim, not of a hero, the arm of a Laocoön, Pollak reckons, from a variant of the myth, punished by Apollo for desecrating an altar:

The extended arm is monumental, sublime and wrong. The arm that will never reach out again. My arm—the arm of a doomed man—that is the real arm.

Pollak recounts his “gradual disappearance from Rome” as Mussolini’s regime veered towards anti-Semitism. He was “no longer acknowledged among the buildings and on the street and in the piazze . . . no longer mentioned in books, either. Extinguished. It’s quite simple really.”

And so the conversation goes on.

The evil that had Rome in its grip didn’t conceal its presence, or, for the most part, its intentions. In Claire Keegan’s evocative and concisely written Small Things Like These, it is more insidious, not exactly hidden, but not exactly in plain view either.2 It needs complicity but rarely explicitly so.

Set in the small Irish town of New Ross in the weeks leading up to Christmas 1985, and thus some ten years or so before Ireland’s great (economic) leap forward, Small Things Like These is firmly anchored in a time and place, and yet there is something of the fable about it too. Here and there, faint hints of the fantastic can be glimpsed, echoes of a fairy tale:

It was a December of crows. People had never seen the likes of them, gathering in black batches on the outskirts of town then coming in, walking the streets, cocking their heads and perching, impudently, on whatever lookout post that took their fancy, scavenging for what was dead or diving in mischief for anything that looked edible along the roads before roosting at night in the huge old trees around the convent.

The convent was a powerful-looking place on the hill at the far side of the river . . .

There is even a suggestion that the coal and timber merchant, Bill Furlong, the everyman who is Keegan’s principal protagonist, slips for a moment into some sort of Celtic thin place, one of a few occasions that the otherworldly creeps into the plot. And the northern European Christmas has, of course, been associated with all kinds of magic for centuries: Keegan includes a nod, both literally—Furlong is given A Christmas Carol as a child—and, in some ways, in spirit, to Dickens’s paean to redemption, albeit with a less unambiguously joyful ending. Small Things Like These concludes with Furlong taking a plunge into the unknown.

The evil that had Rome in its grip didn’t conceal its presence, or, for the most part, its intentions.

The convent’s nuns run a training school for girls, providing them with a basic education, and they also operate a laundry, renowned for the quality of its cleaning. But there is other, darker talk, that the girls are of “low character, who spent their days being reformed, doing penance by washing stains out of the dirty linen, that they worked from day til night.”

There are further theories, some more benign than others, but Furlong, showing up early at the convent with a delivery, and with no one to receive him, walks on into a chapel where he discovers a group of young women and girls polishing its floor. All are wearing “some horrid type of grey-coloured shifts. One girl had an ugly stye in her eye, and another’s hair had been roughly cut, as though someone blind had taken to it with shears.”

One girl asks for help. Won’t Furlong just take her “as far as the river,” or at least let her out at the gate? He declines and, when a nun finally arrives, fails to say anything, merely completes his delivery. But, as he drives away, he cannot shake the image of the girls out of his head, along with some other things, such as the broken glass on the high wall separating the convent from St. Margaret’s, the school next door, and “how the nun had locked the front door after her, with the key, just coming out to pay.”

A fog descends, and Furlong loses his way. He spots an old man and asks him where the road he is on will take him. It “will take you wherever you want to go, son.”

Back at home he tells his wife, Eileen, about what he has seen. She brushes off his worries but tacitly admits there is something to them: “If you want to get on in life, there’s things you have to ignore, so you can keep on.” The nuns are good customers of Furlong’s business. Left unsaid is that he should avoid tangling with the power that, in a small town in an older Ireland, the Catholic Church would have had. Besides, those girls, were, you know. Furlong was born illegitimate, the son of a sixteen-year-old domestic who had “fallen pregnant” while employed by Mrs. Wilson, a Protestant widow who lived in the big house outside of New Ross. Mrs. Wilson had kept her on and had accepted the little boy too, taking him under her wing. “Isn’t it a good job Mrs Wilson didn’t share your ideas?” says Furlong to Eileen.

On a subsequent delivery to the convent, he finds another girl, Sarah, locked in the freezing coal house, barefoot, with the same hacked hairstyle. He could have taken her home, or to the priest’s house, but “once more the ordinary part of him simply wanted to be rid of this.” He rings the convent’s doorbell and ends up with the Mother Superior, but not before Sarah tells him she doesn’t know where her baby is, fourteen weeks old and taken away. The Mother Superior invites Furlong in for tea, no, she insists. What ensues is never quite threatening, nor never quite not, just a cup of tea, just some cake, a query about his five girls—all bright, all destined, Furlong hopes, to complete their education at St. Margaret’s, in Furlong’s view the only good girls’ school in town. “It’s no easy task to find a place for everyone,” observes Mother Superior. Sarah appears, all scrubbed up: a game of hide and seek gone wrong. An envelope contains a generous Christmas bonus.

A while later, the owner of a local restaurant tells Furlong that she has heard that he has had a “run-in with herself above at the convent.” Her tone is that of an ally (“you must know these nuns have a finger in every pie”), but her conversation too turns to his daughters and St. Margaret’s (“Can’t I count on one hand the number of girls from around here that ever get on well who didn’t walk those halls”) and the nuns’ influence there, even though they belong to a different order from those who run it: “They’re all the one.”

Furlong has been mulling over his life, about what, if anything, matters, “apart from Eileen and the girls. He was touching forty but didn’t feel himself to be getting anywhere or making any kind of headway and could not but sometimes wonder what the days were for.” This question keeps reasserting itself in one way or another, as when he imagines an entirely different existence, or reflects on what Mrs. Wilson did for him:

Of her daily kindnesses, of how she had corrected and encouraged him, of the small things she had said and done and had refused to do and say and what she must have known, the things which, when added up, amounted to a life. Had it not been for her, his mother might very well have ended up in that place.

And so he ponders what to do, wandering towards the lights of a town bedecked for Christmas:

White flakes were coming down out of the sky and landing on the town and all around. . . . For a while, he simply walked alongside the quayside with his hands deep in his pockets, thinking over what he’d been told and watching the river flowing darkly along, drinking the snow.

In an epilogue, Keegan explains that although Small Things Like These is fictional, Ireland’s Magdalene laundries had been real and cruel enough, part of a system designed to care for unmarried mothers and their babies, with, too often, terrible, even fatal results.

Keegan has described the process of writing as like “digging stony soil.” I suspect that Laurent Binet took rather more pleasure in writing Civilizations, a novel published in France in 2019 and now available in English in a translation by Sam Taylor.3 Civilizations, in which the Inca establish an empire in Europe, was, Binet told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “conceived like a game. The title Civilizations, in fact, is a reference to the popular strategy video game titled Civilization. It was important for me to tell the reader, ‘ This is a game, and this is not the truth,’ ” a goal that could imply a certain lack of faith in contemporary education.

In the same interview, Binet sympathizes with the notion that the triumph of Francisco Pizarro’s tiny band of conquistadors over the mighty Inca empire owed a great deal to happenstance. Up to a point: it wasn’t the Incas’ fault that they had neither horses nor resistance to smallpox. Theirs was, however, the failure to forge iron, a failure that also meant they had no steel, and thus nothing to match the steel swords of the Spanish. Nor were they helped by the timing of a devastating civil war between Waskhar (Huáscar) and Atawallpa (Atahualpa), two sons of the late Inca emperor, shortly before Pizarro’s arrival.

Keegan has described the process of writing as like “digging stony soil.”

Not satisfied with disparaging the Spanish achievement—say what you will, taking control of a sprawling empire with fewer than two hundred men was no mean feat—Binet claimed that Civilizations was, if only fictionally, righting old inequities: “It’s to give a chance to those who didn’t have a chance to defend themselves against the conquistadors . . .”

But don’t be put off. Notwithstanding some polishing of the Inca image at the expense of their European contemporaries—and to be fair, if there are places for revisionism, one of the best must be in a counterfactual history—Civilizations is a highly entertaining, slyly amusing read. Binet uses the juxtaposition of the wildly different actual and invented pasts to considerable, if understated, comic effect: for the reader to catch the allusions in the fictional to the historical is all part of the author’s game. And so is having fun with the clashing astonishments that accompany the cultural collision at the heart of the book, a collision that upends 1492 and all that.

At its core, despite Binet’s bow to today’s pieties, inevitable perhaps when being interviewed by a Canadian public broadcaster, Civilizations is an erudite jeu d’esprit, and one that is worth playing. By meticulously thinking it through (the detail can be exhausting, particularly by the book’s later stages), Binet manages not only to make his counterfactual work but also, as in the finer examples of this genre, to use it to cast a light on our past, too, as the Inca navigate a culture that is, to them, sometimes distinctly peculiar, as indeed some of it was. Our descendants half a millennium on will doubtless feel the same way about us.

Binet’s saga begins with Leif Erikson’s half-sister Freydis choosing to stay in America rather than, as in our history, returning to Greenland. In stops on a journey that goes as far south as modern Peru, the future homeland of the Inca, her group introduces the native Skraelings to the horses they brought ashore, shows them how to forge iron, and leaves behind a legacy that includes a memory
of Thor (to the Inca a “secondary divinity of obscure origins”) and, in some places anyway, immunity to European disease.

The story picks up, centuries later, told through fragments of Christopher Columbus’s journal. Columbus’s men are overwhelmed by native forces of shocking sophistication. He ends his days, canceled five hundred years before Indigenous People’s Day, the last survivor of his expedition, kept alive in Cuba to entertain Higuénamota, the young daughter of Anacaona, a queen who in our history was hanged by the Spanish.

The story picks up, centuries later, told through fragments of Christopher Columbus’s journal.

The greater part of the third and longest section of the book (seemingly written by some kind of official chronicler quite a while later) is a description of the conquest of much of Europe by Atahualpa, who, fleeing the victorious Huascar (in reality, Atahualpa defeated his brother, only to end up garroted on Pizarro’s orders), lands in Cuba. Before long, Huascar is in hot pursuit and Atahualpa must resume his flight, but to where? Higuénamota recommends traveling east. Atahualpa is shown maps found on Columbus’s ships, two of which were still stranded on a beach. The Inca repair the boats and add another (one of numerous mirror images scattered through Civilizations). Higuénamota, who has learned Castilian from Columbus and has remained intrigued by those mysterious lands across the ocean, asks to join them (“Michelangelo . . . created the magnificent sculpture of her that can be found in the great temple in Seville”), and so they set sail, their party fewer—another reflection in that mirror—than two hundred strong.

The Inca reach “the land of the rising Sun,” stepping ashore at Lisbon, but the city has been wrecked by an earthquake: “The first sounds that they heard in this New World were the barking of dogs and the crying of children.” Their splendor and vigor is a striking contrast to the misery they encounter. One incident is later immortalized, if not altogether accurately, by Titian: “Atahualpa, young, handsome, imperial in his dignity, a parrot on his shoulder, his puma on a leash, surrounded by his wives . . .”

Binet’s jeu becomes a game of thrones, with Atahualpa helped on his way by murder, massacre, war, his intelligence, his instincts, and, for that matter, a treatise recently in from Florence: “This Niccolò Machiavelli struck him as a rather good adviser.” In an early coup, Atahualpa captures a Habsburg with a “tapir nose” and “crocodile jaw,” Charles V, King of Spain, Holy Roman Emperor, and more besides, whom he installs in the Alhambra, complete with the trappings of his power, a fate not so dissimilar to the way that “our” Pizarro handled Atahualpa, before the garroting anyway. When Atahualpa discovers how “little round pieces” of gold and silver are, unlike at home, used in Europe as a medium of exchange, he thinks of “his Andes mountains, which were stuffed full of those metals.” After cutting a deal with his brother (the world was now big enough for the two of them) to ship over large quantities of gold and silver, financing his rise will not be too much of a problem, and it’s not too difficult to play Europe’s rival powers against one another.

Meanwhile, religious divisions, between both the oddly obsessed worshipers of the “nailed god” and also among those of other faiths, offer Atahualpa a useful recruiting opportunity. He pushes for toleration, albeit in a fashion closer to ancient Rome than the Enlightenment, as he adds a proviso that the Sun (the patron deity of the Inca state) must be honored at biannual festivals, a more easygoing arrangement, it should be said, than in the historical Inca empire. England’s Henry VIII is, grumbles tiresome Thomas More (jollying up this timeline too with the prospect of his execution), “replacing the monasteries and abbeys with Temples of the Sun” run “by what the most indulgent call vestal virgins.”

Atahualpa also wins support from the poor with policies that are remarkably progressive in several senses of that polysemous word. These are embedded within the elements of the command economy that constituted a cornerstone of Inca society in our world’s past, and, arguably, an early precursor of twentieth-century catastrophe.

The final section of Civilizations features a version of the Battle of Lepanto and a cast worthy of one of Old Hollywood’s madmen, including Cervantes, El Greco, Francis Drake, Montaigne, two competing popes, and Scots. Quite what it added, I do not know. Binet might have done better to end with the surprise that precedes the last stage in Atahualpa’s odyssey. Rather than reveal it, I’ll just mention a letter from Higuénamota to Atahualpa in which she reports that some newcomers have just built a pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre.

Who would do such a thing?

The Swiss author Peter Stamm has perfected the art of leaving the reader unsure whom, if anyone, to believe. I have read three of his enigmatic, haunting, and beautifully crafted novels, and reviewed two of them in this space—To the Back of Beyond in 2018 and The Sweet Indifference of the World in 2020. In neither case was I entirely sure what I had just read. His narrators are so unreliable that, at times, even their unreliability cannot be taken, well, not completely, for granted. Stamm’s prose is pared down, as is each of those books, none more than a hundred and fifty pages long. Despite their brevity, they are effective for the way that the narratives slowly build, layer upon layer, twist after turn, creating a labyrinth from which it is hard to escape. When they came to what passed for a conclusion, I typically turned again to page one.

The Swiss author Peter Stamm has perfected the art of leaving the reader unsure whom, if anyone, to believe.

Stamm’s latest, It’s Getting Dark, is a collection of short stories (translated as usual by Michael Hofmann) first published in German in 2019 and 2020.4 I hadn’t expected Stamm’s gradualism to work in this abbreviated format (there are earlier collections of Stamm’s short stories available in English, but this unreliable reviewer has not read them). It does work, however, if not quite so well as in his novels. It’s telling that “Marcia from Vermont,” the most compelling tale in It’s Getting Dark, is also the longest. The narrator, Peter, arrives in an artist’s colony that he knows must be owned by a foundation established by the family of a woman, Marcia, with whom he enjoyed a complex (it was two corners of a ménage à quatre), intense, and brief relationship over thirty years before. He had abruptly left, and that was that. He doesn’t even remember what she looked like.

In his room, Peter comes across a manuscript describing those events, seemingly written by the other man in the rectangle, but with a bitterness that takes him aback. Peter is described as an intruder “who had broken into a blissful erotic triangle and destroyed it”; “A child was born.” His? The manuscript is one clue that Marcia may be there. There are others, but, except in a hallucination and then in something that may not have been that, he never sees her, and never makes much effort to find out if she is there. Is the woman in reception her daughter, their daughter? He never discovers. He never asks.

Throughout these tales, what’s real and what’s not is often unclear, and the uncanny is rarely far away. But the collection also includes love stories, offbeat and strangely touching. Then there is the dead man unaware he is dead (and he may not be), as well as a reverse Galatea, a man’s curious encounter in a school that he is unable to find again, and a policewoman searching for missing children in the Alps who ends up lured into another, older, search:

Sometimes I notice that the only steps I hear are mine, my breathing, the rustling of my windbreaker. I turn, but the woman has gone. I’m all alone again. It’s my path, my fate, my brother I must find. It’s my cry that is swallowed in the fog, my joy or lament, my ecstasy.

  1.   Pollak’s Arm, by Hans von Trotha, translated by Elisabeth Lauffer; New Vessel Press, 160 pages, $16.95.
  2.   Small Things Like These, by Claire Keegan; Grove Press, 128 pages, $20.
  3.   Civilizations: A Novel, by Laurent Binet, translated by Sam Taylor; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages, $27.
  4.   It’s Getting Dark: Stories, by Peter Stamm, translated by Michael Hofmann; Other Press, 240 pages, $22.99.

A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 9, on page 60
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now