Although little-known in the United States, Polish author Hanna Krall is famous in her native country as one of the grand masters of the uniquely Polish genre of literary reportage. A colleague of the great Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski (she inspired his Eighth Dekalog) Krall worked as a journalist for much of the 1950s and ’60s before publishing her first book in 1972.
A Polish Jew, Krall was a young child during the Second World War, and she narrowly escaped deportation to the Nazi death camps during the Holocaust, though many of her relatives perished. The Holocaust has accordingly been one of the major themes of her literary work, and American readers now have a chance to see it for themselves in a short, intense work of hers, Chasing the King of Hearts, recently published by Feminist Press in Philip Boehm’s translation.
The book follows the life of the Izolda, whose recent husband Shayek has been deported to Auschwitz. (By the time Krall caught up with her in the early 2000s, Izolda was a Holocaust survivor, and a grandmother, who had long since moved to Israel.) Much of Chasing the King of Hearts deals with the day-to-day things Izolda must do to simply survive as a Jew in occupied Poland, to say nothing of the efforts she makes to secure items to send to her husband in Auschwitz and to remain in contact with him. As a portrait of lives suffering under the weight of the Holocaust, Chasing the King of Hearts is a remarkably affecting, often tear-inducing work.
It is also a stirring, complex portrait of a remarkable woman. Krall’s style here is cinematic, telegraphic, working in intense bursts of narration that drive the story forward at supersonic speed. Though the book is less than 200 pages, this material might have made for an epic of 500 in the hands of another writer. I like Krall’s method for how it gives a sense of the chaos that Izolda faced, the way that all of her life could change at any moment during the War, and the unceasing array of obstacles that battered her as she sought to merely survive and attend to her husband’s survival. It makes the book into less of a philosophical or meditative work than a tactile one, a kind of whirlwind of sensory impression, tautly narrated incidents, interpersonal conflicts, hustling, quick-witted decisions, pure chance, and the battlefield reflections that come to mind amid the ongoing assault of historical forces. Which is not to say that Chasing the King of Hearts doesn’t have discernable ideas and a philosophy about Izolda’s life (it does), only that the book is primarily an immersive, accelerated, imagistic experience.
One of the most interesting things about Chasing the King of Hearts—and one thing that sets it apart from most other Holocaust literature—is that it does not end with the end of the Holocaust. Izolda’s life continues, and there are some surprises that put the events of her wartime relationship with Shayek into interesting perspective. Ultimately the book becomes something not just about the horrors of the Holocaust and survival in wartime Poland; it also delves into the nature of love and identity and what the major events from our life become as we age.
Below you will find four questions with the book’s translator to give a greater sense of this remarkable title and some of the challenges of bringing it into English. In addition to being a translator, Philip Boehm is an American playwright and theater director. He has translated over thirty novels and plays by German and Polish writers, including Herta Müller, Franz Kafka, Gregor von Rezzori, and Ingeborg Bachmann. For these translations he has received fellowships from the NEA and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, as well as awards including the Schlegel-Tieck Prize, the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, and the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize.
Scott Esposito: I’d like to start with a little information about the author, Hanna Krall, as she’s someone who may not be so well known among readers of this website. When I was in Krakow in 2015, she was spoken of in the highest terms, a true legend of the literary reportage genre that is so important to Polish literature. Could you give some sense of Krall’s career as an author and where she stands among the writers of Polish literary nonfiction?
Philip Boehm: Polish reportage is often associated with the three “Ks” — Ryszard Kapuściński, Krzysztof Kąkolewski and Hanna Krall. The website culture.pl has a nice overview: http://culture.pl/en/article/a-foreigners-guide-to-polish-reportage.
Hanna Krall contributed enormously to this school with her book on Marek Edelman, the last living leader of the Warsaw Ghetto resistance, who stayed in Poland and became a renowned cardiologist. She has always considered herself a journalist, but has devised her own style to convey meanings lurking under the surface of the events themselves—the memory and motivations of the protagonists. She was a noted dissident in the Communist era and she remains outspoken on social issues in the face of the demagoguery now besetting Poland and elsewhere.
SE: Whatever else it is, Chasing the King of Hearts is a part of Holocaust literature, as it details the life of a Polish-Jewish woman named Izolda, who was ghettoized by the Nazis and survived Auschwitz. The book deals with her devotion to her husband, who is taken by the Nazis early on, and whom she desperately fights to help survive the war. Can you explain a little about who Izolda was and how Krall came to write her story?
PB: Izolda Regensberg believed her story ought to be told, ought to be made into a film. Hanna Krall’s first attempt to retell Izolda’s story didn’t satisfy either of them. Only many years later—and after Izolda had approached other writers who did not take on the assignment—did she return to Hanna Krall. And in the meantime Hanna Krall had figured out how to tell the story, paring it down and compressing it into the form we now have. It’s important to remember that this is also a love-story: it’s her love for her husband that drives her to save him, that enables her to survive all the ordeals described in the book. And in the end–well, it’s important not to give away the ending.
SE: You’ve mentioned the compressed nature of the prose in Chasing the King of Hearts, which is really one of the most distinctive things about this book. It is a very lean, very energetic kind of writing, incredibly lapidary (which, I would imagine, suits both Krall and Regensberg). Yet, as you pointed out, this is also a love story, one that is at times deeply affecting. I found it rather impressive, how Krall’s prose can at once feel so hard-boiled, yet also modulate to those other tones that this story requires. So two questions for you about the prose: first of all, you’ve pointed out that this was how Krall felt the story had to be told (and she followed this directive even to the extent of going against the subject’s own wishes). Can you offer any insight as to why Krall would choose this method? And secondly, what was the experience of translating this prose for you? Were there certain challenges to such an exacting, compressed style?
PB: I think that Hanna Krall wants to invite her readers on a journey. Instead of presenting them with more facts than they can handle, she intrigues them with just enough to lure them ahead. Incidentally my guess is that the lapidary style is far more hers than Regensberg’s. A reoccurring them is that Izolda felt her story should be a film, and what Hanna Krall gives us is very cinematic, partly because the editing is like a classic shooting ratio. The taut prose and tight pacing keep the movie running, but the scenes show a remarkable variety of emotional tone.
Various challenges do arise—for one thing, Polish sentences don’t always require the subject to be spelled out—it can often be inferred from the verb inflection. In English I had to use more nouns or pronouns—which I tried to counterbalance by paying careful attention to the rhythm of the prose.
SE: Among other things, Chasing the King of Hearts offers some very precise descriptions of World War II–era Europe: Polish ghettos, concentration camps, SS prisons, SS officers, hiding places, Viennese restaurants . . . even dentistry (Regensberg’s teeth are a surprisingly recurrent leitmotif in this book). As a translator, how did you get all of these details correct? Were there particular resources you used?
PB: As it happens I’ve had a lot of experience working with similar material: for instance Words to Outlive Us: Eyewitness Accounts from the Warsaw Ghetto, which took a very long time to research and translate. Since I also work in German I could corroborate details. And the details are essential: for me it’s important to visualize a scene as concretely as possible. That’s also what I have to do when I’m directing a play—I’m constantly surprised how much these two professions overlap.