17 Mar 2012

From reality to fiction and back: reading Herling and Nesbo

I often read several books at one time. I need to read non-fiction often for the purpose of my work, but it can also be for pleasure and the pursuit of other interests. Reading several books at one time may happen because I find one of them hard going, or boring (same thing?). It can also be because books have different modes, subjects, styles and functions, operate at various levels and that I need and enjoy that complementarity.

At the moment I have two on the go and I am struck by the parallels between them, as much as by their differences. One is a frighteningly realistic account of a period in a man's life when he was imprisoned for 2 years in a work camp in the Soviet Union during the Second World War. The author was Polish: Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski. He died in the year 2000, but survived the camp, unlike most of his fellow inmates.

Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski

The other is a recent crime fiction work by the contemporary Norwegian author, Jo Nesbo, who is sometimes described as a successor to Hanning Mankell, the Swedish author who has now moved away from his very successful crime vein.  


Jo Nesbo

I had not previously read anything by Herling. The book I am reading, in its French translation, is called Un monde à part. Initially translated from Polish to English, it came out in England long before the French edition was first published. Astonishingly this French edition only happened in 1985. For this delay, we have to "thank" the appallingly stubborn dishonesty of French intellectuals such as Sartre and their blind communist allegiance, as they prevented or delayed publication of so many works that spoke of what really went on under the Stalinist regime, despite attempts made, especially by Camus, to bring these texts to the public eye. Yet another reason to prefer Camus to Sartre! Herling's book is a sober, precise and utterly relentless description of day-to-day life in the camp of Yertchevo, and of the system that surrounded it. As you may guess, it is not easy reading, despite the quality of the writing, which is remarkable.


It is sometimes said that fact is stranger than fiction. It is certainly more deeply horrific as one is constantly aware that this really happened. These camps were not extermination camps, and so do not have that level of horror. Yet so many died in them, and the system was designed to degrade and debase the individual to the point when he became just an under fed  and desparate machine, just about able to work sufficiently to fulfill the quotas of trees to be cut down (or whatever) that were then imposed by the Stalinist system. People found themselves in these camps mostly for totally ficticious and arbitrary reasons, and escape, in the middle of Siberia, was impossible, or only to find certain death. I am reminded of Primo Levi when reading this book.

So what is in common between this and a work of contemporary fiction such as Nesbo's The Leopard ?  


On the face of things, not a lot, although both deal with horror and imminent death in a sense. Reality against fiction, and extreme collectivity against extreme individuality comprise the polarities between which the two books navigate. Yet there is a humanity in the writing and attitude of both authors that unites them. One unrolls the suite of the events that comprised his prison-camp experience, yet constantly draws conclusions that bring one back to what good, as well as bad, can be found in human beings under extreme conditions. The other invents, of course, but his central characters, those who try to solve the crimes, are essentially motivated by their humanity in the sense that they cannot stand by and let these things happen, even if they have themselves been damaged by them in the past.

One of these books is hard to pick up, the other is hard to put down. That's the way it goes with fiction and its share of escapism I guess. But I will finish them both and, maybe, tell you more.

Read on