Monday 17 March 2008

‘The pump was red’

Looking through old letters, old diaries, it’s the sentences that simply state facts baldly that are the most poignant. ‘It rained today. I didn’t go out.’ ‘We watched a film. It was about a dog.’ ‘My dad bought a new hat.’

They are especially poignant if the words are those of someone who is dead, or someone you loved, or both. And if they are handwritten rather than typed. They can have the haunting impact of an old black-and-white or sepia photograph: this person was once alive on this day, in this weather, in these clothes. The eyes have an innocence; what they are innocent of is everything that comes after, everything that comes between them then and us now, looking at them.

‘The pump was red.’

– a sentence, in fact a paragraph, from a story by Hanna Krall. Born 1937, lives in Warsaw. The cool plain style is exactly appropriate to the intense heat of much of her material – Jewish-Polish-German relations during World War Two and afterwards. She worked as a journalist and takes the (true) facts of her stories from research, interviews; she then, as far as I can work out, recomposes the material as stories, which results in a kind of fictionalised reportage. There are lists, gaps in the record, occasional self-reflective notes (‘If this was a story by Singer …’). The result is not a bastard form (those TV docu-dramas) but one which really does convincingly marry historical truth to the truth of storytelling.

W showed me his versions of some of her stories last week. Some years ago he and the author made a selection of her work with which they attempted to interest UK and US publishers; the Other Press in New York took the selection but substituted another translator. The Woman from Hamburg is a wonderful book (I’m still reading it, slowly), and it would be good to conjure another one.

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