“The Collaborator” by Diane Armstrong: a book review by Geoffrey Zygier

July 11, 2019 by Geoffrey Zygier
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In The Collaborator, her first book in almost a decade, noted Australian writer Diane Armstrong weaves together two interconnected tales. One is her interpretation of a true story, a reworking of an extremely controversial and still unresolved episode from the Holocaust.

Diane Armstrong

This occurrence and its repercussions are employed as both a backdrop and to provide a framework to Armstrong’s other narrative, a more contemporary tale of an individual’s search for the truth and understanding of her family history.

Many readers, particularly anyone interested in the histories of the Holocaust and the State of Israel, would likely be familiar with the first story. It has already been recounted many times in film and print (Killing Kasztner, a 2013 documentary by Gaylen Ross andPerfidywritten by Ben Hecht are perhaps the best known) and focuses on a deal made during World War Two allowing almost 1700 Jews to leave German-occupied Hungary by train for Switzerland in exchange for money, gold and diamonds.

The parties to this agreement were Rezso Kasztner (given the fictional name Miklos Nagy in The Collaborator for reasons that will be apparent to the reader) and Adolf Eichmann. Kasztner was a Hungarian-Jewish journalist, lawyer and activist who became renowned for having helped Jews escape from occupied Europe during the Holocaust. Eichmann of course was a leading Nazi bureaucrat who played a major role in transporting Jews to extermination camps. Following the War, Israeli operatives captured him in Argentina and brought him to Israel to stand trial on various charges, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was found guilty on all of the charges, and was executed on 1 June 1962 (the only judicial execution in Israel’s history).

That a Jew living under Nazi control under continual threat of death was prepared to negotiate in a direct, even forthright manner with the Gestapo says a great deal for Kasztner’s character, particularly his courage and his concern for the welfare of the Jewish People. Yet despite his success on this occasion (and also in other situations), following the War, Kasztner – now a successful Israeli government employee – was publicly accused of having profited materially from his Gestapo connections. Most distressing was the allegation that in order to save a small group of Jews, Kasztner had agreed with Eichmann not to publicise plans for the deportation of all other Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. The aftermath (which I won’t mention for fear of spoiling this novel for readers) was truly shocking.

This is a very remarkable story and Armstrong retells it well. Certainly, she had a lot of reference material at her disposal, but she has assembled it skilfully and coherently. Armstrong brings out the hothouse atmosphere of both wartime Budapest and the new Jewish State very convincingly and is particularly good in conveying the precarious uncertainties of those times. Kasztner/Nagy’s strengths and weaknesses (which included a love affair with the wife of a key member of his team) are also credibly brought to life, as are the terrible and complex moral dilemmas involved in dealing with the Nazis.

So far, so good. In my opinion, however, where this book falters, is in the other story Armstrong tells. This commences in Sydney in 2005 where we meet 40-something Annika Barnett who has recently resigned as editor of a mass-market women’s magazine. Annika is at a loose end, not just professionally, but also socially and emotionally. It is time to take stock of her unfocused life, to find meaning, hopefully, love and to assert herself in her relationship with her grandmother, Marika Horvath, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor.

What would be the best path for a lost, immature middle-aged woman with a range of unresolved issues? I would have thought thrice-weekly sessions on the couch with an insightful analyst, but perhaps that’s too banal. Annika decides on a less conventional strategy: to play detective in Hungary and Israel to find out why her grandmother had never told her family about her Holocaust experiences.

So off Annika goes and learns a few things about politics, history and being Jewish (though not enough to realise that devout Jews don’t fly on Shabbat and that barmitzvahs don’t take place on Friday nights, two glaring mistakes by Armstrong not picked up by the book’s editor). But even though she meets some nice men and does uncover Marika’s secret – which brings all the fictional threads together in a very improbable way – Annika doesn’t learn all that much about what prompted her journey.

In the media release accompanying The Collaborator, Diane Armstrong writes: “I’ve always been fascinated by the behaviour of people in extreme situations, but what intrigued me most [about writing this book] was the underlying moral ambiguity at the heart of this story, and the challenge of uncovering the truth.” To ascertain truth is a very difficult task, however, as evidenced by the diversity of public opinion that still remains more than 70 years after the event.

I think Diane Armstrong is an accomplished author and that there is much in The Collaborator that supports that. The section on the Kasztner story has much to recommend it and the book as a whole is still very readable. Unfortunately, however, I consider that The Collaborator fails to meet the challenge set by its author who made this task even more difficult by her at times implausible narrative.

 

The Collaborator by Diane Armstrong (HQ Fiction, 2019) is to be published next month. Pre-order at all good booksellers including Kindle.

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