Before this English-language translation ever hit the bookshelves, Nancy Hustons Fault Lines was already a hit. In France, more than 400,000 copies of the original French version have been sold. It was shortlisted for Frances premier literary award, the Prix Goncourt, and won the Prix Femina. The novel will no doubt garner additional audiences since it is being translated into over ten different languages.
The big worry with translation is that the sparkle and zip of the original will be lost. There can be no such thing as an exact translation of a novel which runs to 328 pages. Living languages are evolving, eccentric codes. And a good translator will typically add as well as subtract. No doubt something of the original slipped away as Lignes de Failles became Fault Lines. Still, it remains a hugely entertaining and intellectually stimulating read. The novel works its way back counterchronologically in four long self-contained chapters, moving from California in 2004 to Germany in the catastrophic winter of 1945.
Each chapter has a different six-year-old narrator, all from the same Jewish family. Sol, who describes his world as he sees it, in California of 2004, is the great-grandson of Kristina, who discovered, at six years of age, that she was the victim of the Germanization programme initiated by Himmler to compensate for German war casualties. Thousands of babies were ripped from their mothers arms by the Brown Sisters-women in straight brown dresses with stiff white collars-sent by the Nazis to trawl the streets of newly occupied towns in Poland, the Ukraine, and the Baltic states in search of Aryan-looking children to take back to the fatherland. The children passed through Nazi stud farms, known as Lebensborn (fountains of life). They were given German names and placed with German families. Some two hundred thousand children were seized from their families and given new identities in this way. Not remembering her actual parents, Kristina initially likes her German family. Her new father and brother, Lothar, are both away fighting on the Eastern Front. On Wednesdays Kristina and her older sister, Greta, have a bath together:
Our favourite game in the tub is one we invented called Heil Hitler where you stand up and say Heil Hitler in a funny voice, like the voice of a ghost or a madman or a clown or a snobbish lady, or else you get mixed up in the salute and raise your elbow instead of your arm, or you put one thumb on your nose and the other thumb on your pinky and wiggle all your fingers and say: Heil Hitler.
Often children are the first to see the absurdity inherent in the rituals and formalities of adult society. In retrospect, it seems inexplicable that this gang, with their ludicrous outfits, torchlight processions, bizarre symbols, and obvious psychiatric issues, ever came to be taken seriously enough to grab political power in what had been, after all, one of the most advanced and cultured societies on earth. One is forced to conclude that the average person is a less civilised, more bestial being than liberal humanists would have us believe.
I once overheard two middle-aged schoolteachers chatting in a local bookshop; one of them had been my sisters mathematics teacher. As they moved through the history section one turned to the other and half whispered: Theres a lot about them here, the Jews. Theyve had a terrible time. Yes, replied the other man, but they brought most of it on themselves. This same individual, who likes to play a bit of jazz on Sundays, was once a Labour Party candidate for Galway City Council. He no doubt considers himself a man of sophisticated tastes and important opinions. And the strangest thing about our Holocaust-excusing former Labour Party candidate for Galway City Council is that he is not at all strange. He is the kind of person one could meet every day. Most of the time no one asks his opinion. He writes the occasional crank letter to the editor of the local newspaper and no doubt tortures his long-suffering wife with his ideas about how to put the world aright. The tragedy of Germany in the lead-up to the Holocaust was precisely that the maniacal resentments of such little men were unleashed.
Other critics have found the four child narrators in Fault Lines unconvincing. I disagree. In particular, the naïve voice of Kristina in the final chapter is used to devastating effect:
We know its not really a laughing matter [playing their bathtime game Heil Hitler] because last year Lothar ran into our neighbour Mrs. Webern in the hallway, and when he raised his arm and said Heil Hitler she didnt answer so Lothar denounced her to the police and they came and arrested her. Already her husband had been taken away at the beginning of the war and now their children had to fend for themselves with the older ones looking after the younger. Mrs. Webern was gone for three whole weeks and when she came back she said Heil Hitler again just like everyone else.
Nancy Huston successfully uses the child Kristinas matter-of-fact voice to tell the story of one of historys worst tragedies. In this Fault Lines calls to mind Irish writer John Boynes The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas. However, where Boyne looks at the Holocaust as if through a microscope, Huston employs an altogether different scale. In chapter three the war is over and Kristina is living in Canada. It is 1962. The narrator is Kristinas six-year-old daughter Sadie. Sadie is mostly brought up by her grandmother:
She teaches me all about good health and a balanced diet and how to cook so Ill grow up to be an excellent homemaker like herself and unlike Mommy who lives in Yorkville in a cruddy little flat teeming with friends and cockroaches . . . Mommys boyfriends swear and criticise the government and smoke cigarettes and call Mommy Krissy instead of Kristina and dont seem to mind her having a six-year-old bastard by the name of Sadie.
Chapter two is narrated by Sadies son-Kristinas grandson-Randall. The family moves from New York to Haifa in Israel. It is 1982. History intrudes again in the form of the ill-fated Israeli invasion of Lebanon:
At lunchtime Nouzha [Randalls Arab friend] whispers to me: Sharon just invaded West Beirut, do you realize that? and I nod but I dont know who Sharon is and I wish I could just go to play baseball in Central Park.
As the chapter proceeds, Randalls own parents-his liberal-leaning father and Zionist-inclined mother-argue constantly about the rights and wrongs of the invasion. Several of Nouzhas relatives are killed in the Shatila refugee camp. The war puts an end to his friendship with Randall. Huston achieves more with this childs story than many others whove tried to depict life with conflict in the Middle East.
The book begins with the chapter set in California in 2004, although this really is the final part the familys story. The narrator is Randalls son, Sol, who tells us:
My father once lived in Israel himself when he was my age and he loved the city of Haifa so much that of all the places to live in the United States of America he chose California, because the eucalyptus and palm trees and orange groves and flowering bushes reminded him of the good old days. Israel is also where he started not liking Arabs because of some Arab girl he fell into and out of love with there.
Randall is by now a man overwhelmed by his own armchair hatreds. When the captured Saddam Hussein-his hair all matted and dirty-is paraded on TV, Randal says to his son from his vantage point on the couch: Boy, thats what I call defeat . . . I hope all those Muslim terrorists know whats in store for them.
The subject matter of this novel may be serious, but Nancy Hustons writing is never heavy. Indeed, Fault Lines is peppered with black humour. My favourite instance is on page 15 where Sol earnestly tells us that:
Recently this rabbi in Florida ordered Jewish women to stop wearing wigs made out of Indian womens hair because in India they bow down to gods with six arms or elephant heads or whatever and their hair gets all sullied by praying to these gods so Jewish women will also get sullied by wearing wigs made out of it so they have to buy new synthetic wigs at once, the rabbi said, but Grandma said that this was going too far.
Fault Lines offers a deep engagement with life as it has to be lived in this utterly flawed world. On one level it is a family saga, and a story with which a wide range of readers will identify; all of us have families, and every family has its story. But Fault Lines is more than that: it is a book which in its subtle way makes undeniable the fact that the Holocaust is a nightmare from which humanity has yet to wake up. Its ghosts are still everywhere. Kevin Higgins
(Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada