Can you forgive a Nazi?

Author Jodi Picoult is well-known for taking otherwise ordinary characters, throwing them into exigent circumstances and watching them closely to see the best and worst that could happen. Her previous books have, after all, seen a girl who rebels against the fact that she was conceived as a bone marrow match for her ailing sister, teenager lovers making what seems like a suicide pact, and communities unravelling after a single incident.

Jewish civilians forced to march by SS soldiers during the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto in occupied Poland in 1943. Author Jodi Picoult’s new book explores a moral dilemma connected with the Holocaust. Getty Images (Courtesy of the National Archives/Newsmakers)

With her new book, the author attempts to dive into dark, very dark territory, and introduce moral and ethical obligations surrounding one of the bleakest moments in human history — the Holocaust.

The Storyteller starts with Sage Singer, a 25-year-old girl who has been part of a grief therapy group since three years. The reason — an accident which proved fatal for her mother and left her with a facial scar which she tries to hide by ducking her head and letting her hair fall over her face. Singer is not just shy but painfully reticent and rigidly guarded. She works as a baker at a local café from late evening till the wee hours of the morning — a routine she has chosen because it allows her to hide from the world. She has a religious, sympathetic friend in the café’s owner, Mary DeAngelis, who understands her grief, but not her decision to have an affair with a married man.

It is, however, nonagenarian, Josef Weber who turns Singer’s life around. A man well-loved by the local community, Weber is part of Singer’s grief therapy group, and often visits her at her café. Gradually, Singer finds herself opening up to this man who she finds to be kind, thoughtful, and who always shares half his roll with his dachshund. Soon, Singer finds out the real reason behind the friendship, at least from Weber’s side — he reveals that he was an SS officer and wishes a Jew (Singer) to administer his death.

Singer is expectedly stunned, but does not balk. She calls the Department of Justice, and speaks to ‘Nazi hunter’ Leo Stein to report Weber’s existence.

Hereon, the story also turns its gaze towards Singer’s grandmother, Minka, a Holocaust survivor who never speaks of the horrors of her past, but must do so now. To explore the stories of Singer, Minka, Stein and Weber, Picoult employs all their points of views in turns. Clearly, Minka’s story is related to Weber’s life, and, in typical Picoult fashion, a twist awaits the reader at the end. Will Singer help Weber die? Was he directly responsible for Minka’s state? Most importantly, can death granted by a Jew cleanse a Nazi of his previous inhuman conduct?

Picoult acknowledges that the premise of this book comes from another, The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal. The author, a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, was brought to the deathbed of an SS soldier who wished to be forgiven by a Jew. Picoult takes the thought forward and puts a Holocaust survivor’s kin at the same crossroads. This, she does armed with impeccable research, which is especially evident from the story of Minka, who lived in the ghetto, Lodz, before being herded to Auschwitz concentration camp.

The Storyteller, as most of Picoult’s other books, is packed with poignant detail. Most of her descriptions are passionate (the art of making bread, for instance, is discussed quite beautifully). Some bits, however, threaten to border on the maudlin.

Sometimes, Picoult just does not let events simmer enough before throwing the chaos in. Singer is damaged by events — we know that — but Picoult does not find it necessary to tell the reader exactly why (except a few instances referring to the mother’s accident). The most crucial dilemma of the book — which must make it difficult for Singer to grant Weber his death wish — is supposed to be complicated by the fact that the two develop a close bond over bread and conversations. However, Picoult does not tell — or show — the reader why their friendship is special in any way.

The Storyteller has its great moments, and plenty while we are at it. It is not easy to put the book down. Its pace, plot and premise is riveting. Much has been said, written, filmed and discussed about the Holocaust, and it is, indeed, a challenge to do something with a theme that demands caution, research and respect. Yet, Picoult weaves a thrilling tale which doesn’t fall short in any of those aspects. The best part of the book — Minka’s narration of her life in the concentration camp — is harrowing and horrifying, like it should be. The ethical dilemma of the protagonists are dealt with at length and you put the book down feeling glad that you are not where Picoult often places her characters.

The Storyteller
Jodi Picoult
Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Rs 695   

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