Jodi Picoult might have been referring to herself when she called her latest novel “The Storyteller.” She is a consummate tale spinner, and this book suggests the power of narrative under the most desperate of circumstances --- and its limitations. Words can hardly encompass the dehumanizing horror of the ghettos and concentration camps of the Nazi era. How do you speak of the unspeakable? Many have tried. Picoult is brave enough to join them.
Sage Singer bears scars both visible and internal, and they’ve turned her into a loner. Her married-man lover and solitary nocturnal work as a baker reinforce her isolation --- until, in a grief therapy group she is attending after the death of her mother, she encounters an elderly widower, Josef Weber, a former high-school German teacher and pillar of their New Hampshire community. Kindred spirits, they become friends.
But Weber has an ugly secret: During the war, he confesses to Sage, he was an SS officer at Auschwitz. He requests that she help him to die. It’s difficult for her to believe that he is telling the truth, and she is repelled by his logic: “He thinks if I kill him biblical justice will be served and a karmic debt will be erased, a Jew taking the life of the man who took the life of other Jews.”
Sage doesn’t say yes or no; she buys time. First she contacts the police (“I’ve never even seen the guy swat a mosquito,” says a local cop disbelievingly), then the FBI. She winds up on the phone with Leo Stein, a lawyer from the Office of Human Rights and Special Prosecutions of the Justice Department.
For the purposes of Stein’s investigation, it proves necessary for Sage to involve her Polish-born grandmother, Minka, a survivor of Auschwitz. If she can identify Josef and confirm his crimes, then he can be prosecuted. Although Minka bears concentration-camp numbers on her arm, and a saga of incredible pain and cruelty in her heart, she has never told Sage much about her wartime experiences. “When I got here, to America, this is when my life began,” she says.
But Stein is persuasive, and Minka, it turns out, is a storyteller twice over. She reveals not only the facts of her life but also a fantastic gothic saga of her own invention (she kept writing fiction through all her travails, from ghetto to concentration camp). This dark fairy tale involves a girl, Ania, very much like Minka herself; two brothers, Aleksander and Casimir; and the upióry, vampirelike figures of Polish legend.
"...sincere and gripping. Authors as popular as Picoult rarely step out of their comfort zone; she deserves credit for risking a new and perilous direction."
When a Nazi officer happens upon Minka’s upióry tale, written in tiny script on the backs of photographs, he becomes enthralled. He switches her to an easier job working in his office, gives her a notebook and pen, and demands that she produce 10 new pages every day, reading them aloud for his delectation. It’s the Scheherazade story transplanted to Auschwitz, as the threat of extermination hangs over Minka the whole time she is writing.
Yet the question “What happens next?” also helps Minka and her fellow prisoners to survive, to remain human despite the shaved heads, the disease, the starvation, the slaughter. “When I was reading my own work, I got lost in the story,” she says. “[D]uring those moments, I felt…as if my voice still mattered.”
THE STORYTELLER includes a fourth narrative that explains (but does not justify) how Weber, an ordinary German boy, became a killer. As he puts it, “Inside each of us is a monster; inside each of us is a saint. The real question is which one we nurture the most, which one will smite the other.” This moral schizophrenia is echoed in Minka’s novel: Ania falls in love with Aleksander, only to discover that both brothers are monsters who eat flesh and drink blood. But Aleks struggles against his nature and Casimir does not. The parallels between the undead in the upióry story and the Nazis are all too obvious. Is Josef, like Aleks, a “monster with remorse,” and can his conscience win him Sage’s forgiveness?
Picoult helps keep the multiple storylines straight by giving each a distinctive typeface and a different voice, but I’m not sure they meld successfully. The upióry tale employs lyrical, imaginative language and has a timeless, folkloric quality. Minka and Josef’s first-person narratives are chillingly specific. The contemporary plot, however, reads more like Picoult’s previous books. Despite the tragic event in Sage’s life that left her face scarred, the tone is wry, even a bit jokey. Mary, owner of the bakery/café where she works, is a “recovering nun”; Rocco, the barista, speaks only in haiku;and Leo Stein, the Nazi hunter, turns out to be an adorable, humorous single guy whose mother would like him to find a nice girl. Straight out of central casting.
Now, I savored Leo and Sage’s romance and admired the way Picoult handles the trajectory of their budding relationship as they attempt to identify and condemn Josef. It’s a love story and a revenge story rolled into one. But it sits a bit oddly next to the tales from the Holocaust. It’s like going to see The Sorrow and the Pity and finding yourself watching a Lifetime movie instead.
THE STORYTELLER is not flawless, but it is sincere and gripping. Authors as popular as Picoult rarely step out of their comfort zone; she deserves credit for risking a new and perilous direction. This novel is ambitious --- it mixes past and present, reality and fantasy; it attempts to explore the very nature of evil and guilt, revenge and redemption. It’s messy at times, less slick and shapely than her other fiction, and not tied up so neatly at the end.
“There are no words that will ever come close to describing it,” says Minka of the Holocaust, explaining why she was so reluctant to speak out. But silence is not an option. The storytellers among us, Picoult seems to be saying, must find a language that keeps the memories alive.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on March 1, 2013