Hanna Krall's Chasing the King of Hearts (translated by Philip Boehm, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is mainly set in Poland during the last few years of the Second World War. Izolda is a Polish Jew living in the Warsaw Ghetto, and with the writing on the wall, she decides that it's time to start thinking about escape. On the very first page of the book, she meets fellow Jew Shayek, quickly falling in love with (then marrying) him, and this love is the catalyst for the events which follow.
If you think this sounds like another three-hankie piece of Holocaust Lit though, you'd be mistaken. Chasing the King of Hearts is not one of those clichéd WW2 novels where the writer ratchets up the tension before playing on the reader's emotions with scenes of torture, death and betrayal. Instead, Krall focuses on one woman and her quest to save the man she loves - the fact that there's a war going on is just a technicality...
Rather than being a traditional, seamless narrative, the book is divided into many short sections, each lasting a page or so. This structure has the effect of eliminating dead time, whisking the reader (and Izolda) through the war years, almost without our realising how much time has passed. Krall's laconic style also means that the horrors of the Holocaust are kept in the background, only very rarely surfacing, and there's a lot of dry humour:
"Izolda understands Lilusia's cunning, but then she takes a closer look at the handbag and sets it on the floor. How's that? Does the bag look Jewish there? She tries the sofa, the stool, the chair. Because if it does, what exactly about the bag is Jewish?"Even when matters do become a little more emotionally charged, the next section usually sweeps those feelings away - there's no time to dwell on the past here.
p.21 (Peirene Press, 2013)
The title comes from the fortune-telling Izolda has an acquaintance do for her using a normal set of playing cards. Shayek is the King of Hearts (Izolda, naturally is the Queen), and the chase takes place both within the deck and all across Europe, as Izolda does her best to keep tabs on her husband, hoping to alleviate his suffering and reunite with him one day. In the process, she shows herself to be a formidable woman, brave, resourceful and inventive, someone who can always find a way to do the impossible.
Her greatest strength is her adaptability. She's a woman who's prepared to do almost anything, crawling through sewers, smuggling contraband and marching in and out of the Ghetto, seemingly without blinking an eye. Her brazenness is also breathtaking, able to lie through her teeth and smile when she's found out, allowing her to charm those who can be charmed and bribe those who can't. In fact, she's a bit of a chameleon, and at times she begins to see herself as who she's pretending to be, rather than who she was:
"Her suffering is worse, because she is worse. That's what the whole world thinks, and the whole world can't be wrong when it comes to a sense of good and bad, or rather, better and worse.
She is worse and that's why she is in disguise. She has a new name and a new hair colour and a new voice and laugh and a new way of carrying her handbag. And she prefers her new self to the real thing. So what does that mean? That her disguised self... that her pretend self is better than her real self." (pp.55/6)
The key to the whole book though is that it is actually a romance. From the very start, the reader is told that Izolda is madly in love with Shayek, and everything she does throughout Chasing the King of Hearts is done for him. However, in the times she finds herself in, this attitude brings with it some moral dilemmas, for in investing so much in one man, Izolda may have to neglect other loved ones - and that neglect may have serious consequences. Should she be devoting all her time, energy and money to helping Shayek, or would it be better to help the people around her? It's a rather nasty dilemma to face...
There's a lot to like about the book, one that many people will enjoy. It's an interesting, different look at a period which, having already been covered extensively, can sometimes leave novels feeling rather stale and old. I liked it, even if I didn't really love it, and I felt that the short, fleeting sections were both the book's strength and its weakness. While it kept the reader engaged, I felt that at times a little slipped between the cracks; I would have enjoyed it more if it had slowed down at times, just a little...
I did enjoy the way the book finished though, as we get to experience life after the war and find out what happened to Izolda and Shayek. The last sections are poignant and force the reader to ask themselves if it was all really worth it, the sacrifices and the suffering. While we're not sure what Izolda's answer would be, Chasing the King of Hearts is certainly worth the sacrifice of a couple of hours of your time :)