Deviation by Luce d'Eramo and Anne Milano Appel (translator)

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Deviation by Luce d'Eramo and Anne Milano Appel (translator)

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A different Holocaust story, certainly, but one that may be too easy to dismiss as hard to engage with. In the right frame of mind, its literary merits are more than evident, though.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: January 2019
Publisher: Pushkin Press
ISBN: 9781782273882

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For those of you who have read books of life in the Nazi camps – and of course, for those of you who have not – this can be considered a next step. It begins, after all, with someone escaping Dachau and fleeing her work assignment during a bombing raid, and you'd not blame her one minute, as her career was deemed to be cess-tank cleaner and sewage unblocker by the Germans. In Munich, she stumbles on help to get her to what seems to be a camp for non-native civilians to look for work, or company, or transport elsewhere, either official or otherwise. But then the next chapter sees her going back into the camp next to Dachau once more, and by then eyebrows are being raised.

The Holocaust is something I've long been interested in reading about – I'm no expert, but I thought I knew pretty much enough to engage with any stories resulting from it. Not here, however. To start with, I could not rightfully tell what was happening at key times. Why does our lead character break back into Dachau? And exactly how official is the semi-camp next to the labour exchange in the first chapter? It turns out to be a glorified knocking-shop, to some extent, but how complaisant the Nazis were about it, and how official anything is, is left off these pages. And that's a little confounding.

What sets this book very far from the norm when Nazi literature is concerned, is the amount of sexual activity, which is rarely seen hand in hand with the Final Solution. There are public shenanigans in both the first two chapters, and a strong coyness about whether our heroine ever takes part. But that's partly due to this being very much an autobiographical book. And we learn why she was in Dachau from the blurb, for the very real woman who wrote this novel was a hot-headed teen, with fascist parents, who went to the camps to volunteer for work to prove to herself that they were not nearly as bad as the "slander" against the Nazis attested. She was, of course, wrong. There's a sense of irony in the book, of being sexually coy yet overtly having those ideas in the first place.

Each chapter is dated for its conclusion, teaching us this was two decades or more in gestation. And there is a quick improvement in style between the first two sections and the next, which made for easier reading. Mind, the medical and relationship problems that beset the narrator, when a wall smashes onto and paralyses her, months before VE Day, soon also get a touch wearisome – not skippable, but close. The third major part of the book is a flashback, and gains a third person approach, whose effect is debatable.

But it's the final and longest section that fulfils what the book sets out to do. It answers all the questions I mentioned above, and more. And in seeing an author discussing her writing of what she's written, you get a sort of Knausgaardian self-reflection. Now, you tell me that and I'd be turned off immediately, but this isn't nearly as singular, and is a lot more readable. We see instead a woman revisiting her past, and revisiting her literary revisits. I found nothing in Knausgaard's struggle that justified such a turning back, but the results of Mein Kampf and other elements of the Holocaust should justify it more.

I've seen notices elsewhere (really? Are there really other places to go for book reviews?!) that debate the success of the translation. I'm not going to do that; what I will pinpoint is the high literary style that may have put people off – certainly in contrast with many Holocaust memoirs. I wasn't completely in favour with this – there was a reason, I assumed, for this book to sit on the to-be-translated shelf for four decades. But this is one of those instances where you have to trust the author, that she is going to join the dots and provide a finished article that ultimately we can understand. Patience in that regard then is a virtue – but I can see many potential readers not quite having enough.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

The Hidden by Mary Chamberlain is a non-judgmental fictional look at lives under Nazi occupation, from an author who's previously written about Dachau.

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