Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Visible World—by Mark Slouka

Mark Slouka, the son of Czech immigrants, grew up in a family distanced from their homeland by the political climate of their time. The The Visible World is a fictional account of a family torn away from their Czech homeland by the political turmoil of their world—the era of Nazi expansion and terror. Despite living in the United States their friends and associates are Czech people who are also displaced from their homes, country and language.

The story was of particular interest to me because I've met a number of adults who are the children of survivors. Their parents survived the atrocities meted out by Germany during WWII. For some of these adults there remains a need to know the beginning story of their parent's lives. Some parents refused to talk about those years or omit portions. There are questions to be asked, but no answers. One woman I know created an organization where children of Nazis and children of Holocaust survivors meet. I've met several people who after a parent's death return to that parent's country of origin.

As a young boy the protagonist of The Visible World knows that his mother's past wears on her causing her to become more and more distant. His father alludes to a man she had loved who died during the "bad" times. Not only has she never recovered from this lost love, but as the years pass she becomes more and more mired in the past.

"Nothing could match what they had, for the simple reason that they couldn't have it again."

As she retreats from her family into her own world some of the past is pieced together, but huge gaps remain. Who was this man? Why did
she return to a prior love—his father? What really happened? Only some of the answers are available.

One day his mother "...stepped directly in front of the 4:38 bus to Allentown." At that point seven years had passed since mother and son spoke to one another.

"My mother erased herself so throughly that for a long time after she died, I couldn't find her anywhere."

We all need to connect ourselves to the past, to learn the story, to ferret out the beginnings. Ofttimes the only way that is possible is by taking some of what we know and constructing a story around the known facts.

The boy, now a man, returns to Prague where his mother's story began. He hopes to find someone who remembers his mother and her
lover. Despite all leads it isn't possible to reconstruct the real story. One possible scenario is that his mother's lover was one of the young
men involved in the assassination plot against the despised Reinhard Heydrich, a Nazi appointee. Everything that follows in the last section
of the book is conjecture. What isn't conjecture is the historicity of the plot.

In his quest to find the truth of his mother's relationship her son says—"I collected facts, as I always had, like a child hoping to build an oak from bits of bark."

The oak that he weaves is constructed of memory, fabrications and facts. What is patently clear is that his mother's life was interrupted and despite her attempt to continue that interruption became a chasm. The book has a haunting quality and a sadness permeates the telling.

2011 Read East challenge

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