Truth – the angel you cannot outrun

Review: Vivien Horler

The Little Liar, by Mitch Albom (Sphere)

The Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said once described Palestinians as “the victims of the victims, the refugees of the refugees”.

This was a reference to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and how the establishment of the state of Israel, prompted in part by Western guilt that the Holocaust had happened at all, led to Palestinians losing homes, livelihoods and lives.

The Little Liar, by the renowned Jewish-American writer Mitch Albom, is a Holocaust novel. It focuses on Greek Jews from Salonika (or Thessaloniki) who were rounded up by the Germans in 1943 and sent to Auschwitz.

In 1939, Salonika had the highest percentage of Jews in Europe.

It isn’t really fair to start a review of a novel, even one based on fact, with a reference to a current and appallingly tragic war, one that has sharply divided public opinion across the world.

But if you’re reading a book about unbearable atrocities meted out to Jews simply because they were Jews, while at the same time the Gaza horror is playing out daily on our TV screens, it’s hard not to let the feelings aroused by these images stain one’s feelings about the story.

For heaven’s sake, were no lessons learnt?

Albom, author of the best-selling Tuesdays with Morrie, says in a note that for much of his writing life he had wanted to set a story during the Holocaust, but “I couldn’t seem to find one that wasn’t already tragically familiar”.

Then, during a visit to a museum some years ago, he saw a video from a survivor recounting how Jews were sometimes used to lie to fellow Jews about where the trains to the concentration camps were going.

This was the seed of The Little Liar who, in the novel, is an 11-year-old boy Jewish boy called Nico Krispis, who is known in his community for never telling a lie.

When the Germans come to Salonika, Nico happens to attract the attention of the top Nazi SS officer in the city, Udo Graf. Thanks to that, as the deportations begin, Nico is sent to the main train station to persuade the frightened and displaced members of his community that they are going to a new life with better homes and jobs.

And because everyone knows Nico never lies, they choose to believe him. But the day he sees his own family shuffling on to the train, he knows the Germans have been using him, and he resolves never to tell the truth again.

Nico has an extraordinary war, at one point seeking refuge with a group of Romanis – once known as Gypsies – who teach him the useful skill of forging documents. The narrative states: “Before the war was over, more than half of the Romanis living in Europe would be wiped out. Some say three out of every four were put to death.”

Aart from Nico and Udo Graf, the other two major characters in this tale are Nico’s 15-year-old brother, Sebastian, and Fannie, who was in Nico’s class at school and whom Sebastian fancies. Sebastian and Fannie are in a box car on the same train to Auschwitz, but Sebastian manages to get her thrown out of a window, which leads to an entirely different experience of the horror to come.

The narrator of this terrible tale is Truth, an “angel” cast from heaven into the depths of the earth.

Truth says: “I am the shadow you cannot outrun, the mirror that holds your final reflection. You may duck my gaze for all your days on earth, but let me assure you, I get the last look.”

The narrative moves on to well beyond the war, to a rally in Salonika to mark the 40th anniversary of the deportation of Jews from the city, and our story reaches a climax. It involves a gun, blood and a death.

The Little Liar is engaging, terrible, and a new take on the Holocaust.

But, oh my word, could “never again” actually mean, never again?

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