Glatshteyn, Yankev. 2006. Emil and Karl. Square Fish. (Roaring Book Press) 194 pages.
There is an immediacy and urgency to Emil and Karl. Written in 1938--in Yiddish--it was only recently (2006) translated and published in English. Set in Austria, Vienna to be exact. The Third Reich is in power, yet the horror of World War II has not yet dawned. The full wrath unleashed during the Holocaust--the organized full-scale murdering of the Jewish people*--has yet to begin. Though the hate is strong and ever-present. Meet Emil and Karl. Best friends. One is Jewish. The other is not. But despite it being in Karl's "best interest" to forget about his Jewish friend, Emil, he can't brush him off.
The seriousness of the novel is apparent from the very beginning. When we first meet Karl, he is alone.
"Karl sat on a low stool, petrified. The apartment was as still as death. He looked at the pieces of the broken vase scattered on the floor. Several times he reached out with one hand to pick up an overturned chair lying beside him. The chair looked like a man who had fallen on his face and couldn't get up. But each time Karl tried, he could only lift the chair up a little bit, and then it fell down again. It was even quieter in the kitchen and the bedroom--so quiet he was afraid to go in there. It wasn't that Karl minded being in the apartment by himself. He'd been left alone there more than once before; he could even go to bed by himself without being afraid. He wasn't scared of spooks or devils. Instead, he loved to stare, wide-eyed, into the darkness and make up stories." (1)
Why is he afraid? He witnessed what I imagine would have seemed the unthinkable. He watched them take his mother. He watched them hurt her. He heard their threats. He heard them threaten to come back...for him. In one night, everything in Karl's world is turned upside down.
When he does move, act, it is to go see his friend, Emil. He seeks the comfort of a true friend. What he learns is that Emil too has changed. Emil and Karl have an enemy in common now. Both have been orphaned. Both have only each other. Can these two children find a way to survive in this topsy-turvy ever-dangerous world where hate rules supreme?
What makes Emil and Karl unique--in my opinion--is its urgency. When it was written, this wasn't a distant event in the past. This wasn't historical fiction. This was current events. This was the threat and danger facing the world. And at the time it was written, it was a threat that had not been conquered. There's a suspenseful quality to it. A sense of the unknown. There was no happy ending light at the end of the tunnel to brighten it up. In fact, the worse was yet to come. It's an emotional novel; it's brilliantly and intelligently written to make you feel that you are there, that you are witness.
*I'm not forgetting that the Holocaust also was about murdering other people as well. There were political prisoners as well as the targeting of gays and gypsies.
© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews
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