Review: The Painting by FK Wallace

Stefan, a naive young Pole, meets Gunter, an artist in 1930s Berlin. Their passionate love affair is overshadowed by the rise of the Third Reich. Denounced to the Nazis, they are sent to Auschwitz as pink triangle prisoners.

Some things even love cannot withstand.

Forty years later Stefan returns to Poland with one question: when you have nothing left, how can you prove that love ever existed?

Berlin in 1936; optimism fading, the freedoms of the Weimar Republic little more than a memory, yet the inhabitants of the city blind themselves to the approaching disaster. The Painting is a story of love, of survival, of a life lived at the mercy of the most terrible events of the twentieth century.

http://www.thepaintingnovella.com

Review by Erastes

Hidden away on Lulu and Smashwords there are quite a lot of gay historicals. I often search through those sites in case I find anything that seems promising, and often I do, so it is a worthwhile endeavour. This title, however, came to my notice through an industry friend Leslie Nichol who said it was a heartbreaking read, but well worth it.

The subject matter of the first half of the book certainly will put many people off from attempting this book, but I urge you to put that aside, be brave and to try this book out.  The issue of Paragraph 175, the Pink Triangle and the camps has been dealt with in many memoires and textbooks, but few fictional representations as far as I am aware. The play and film “Bent” deals with it fantastically, too—and this book has something of the feel of Bent to it—only it’s not quite as devastating to read. This should be obvious as I did say that the first half of the book deals with the camps, and so the book moves on from that point.

It’s the story of Stefan Brukalski, Polish born and raised—he comes to Berlin in the early 1930’s because he’s heard that it is a city bursting with inspiration and creative life. The book opens with him at a pavement cafe, at the end of his tether and deciding to return to his home town in Poland, because Berlin has changed drastically since he heard tales of how liberal and fun she was. The Night of the Long Knives put paid to much of the liberalism, and the city is beginning to learn how to live in fear. It is at this cafe where he meets Gunter, a man 14 years Stefan’s senior, a painter, who picks him up, takes him home and they begin a passionate and heartfelt affair. Stefan becomes a German citizen to be able to stay in the country with Gunter, and both men (as they had little choice in the matter) join the National Socialist Party, Stefan as a clerk, and Gunter as an architect/planner.

By the time the war begins, it is clear that Gunter is tortured by some secret he can’t and won’t divulge, and their relationship takes a nosedive, but Stefan holds on, trying to be strong for them both. Then one day storm troopers close off the street and arrest everyone they can. Stefan hides in a hidden place in the house and waits but the scare is enough for them to decide to split up for safety. Homosexuals are being rounded up, being put into camps, and they think the safest thing to do is to separate.

It’s after this that everything goes to hell, for our two main characters (and everyone else) and the section regarding Stefan’s arrest and consequent experiences in Auschwitz are bravely done. The author seems to have reined back a little on what she could have written, but what she puts down is probably worse, because the imagination takes over, filling in the details from every newsreel and documentary our generations have seen, the generations who were not there. I think, though, that the author hints at the worst of it, and although the chimneys are described and the smoke, I didn’t really get the sense that Stefan knew what was going on. I think Wallace was relying too heavily on what the reader would actually know, and felt that she didn’t need to spell it out. Perhaps that’s the right approach. I don’t know.

But it’s this reining in that troubles me for the entire book in general. The description of Berlin as it turned itself inside out from a free-thinking, artistic haunt where anything goes and wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome, to a police state, and then a city under threat of attack was not sketched out for me in enough detail. Most of the pre-war/pre-arrest sections are spent closeted away in Gunter’s apartments and I for one would have liked to have been shown more of the city. It is said that they rarely went out socially, for fear of giving themselves away, but I’d have liked to have seen even the shopping trips, and the like. We are told what’s going on, but we aren’t really shown it.

Aside from the camp sections—which, as I said—probably benefit from veiling the reader from day after day of the horror, the book runs like this with telling rather than showing, and we race along from the end of the war, careering into the fifties and sixties and seventies in a breathless rush, not really showing the passing of time, the changing of the fashions, the ideals in the country where the book takes place. I would have expected some social commentary on England, to be honest. There was a nice touch where the police call on Stefan after his story hit the headlines, and he panics that he’s going to be arrested, no charge, and dragged away, but of course—it’s England and nothing much happens at all. But England would have been such a haven (in comparison to Communist Poland or post-war Germany) and it’s not explored at all.

The book deals with a lot, family issues, people doing things because they had no choice, survivor guilt, and much much more—and with the weighty issues it has to cover it can’t help but skimp on some of the human detail.  I for one would have liked the pace to slow after the 1950’s, to show us him bringing up his niece in more chapters than we were given, but we leapt forward seven years in each chapter and it didn’t help to get me connected to Hannah at all, or to get a sense of that, for 14 years or so, he lived a happier life. It didn’t explain his rise as an author, and that’s something I’d have liked to have seen.

Perhaps it should have been two books. It reads as a family saga, and I’m a great lover of family sagas, and would happily read a book three times the size, watching the years go by. I felt a little cheated because I seemed to be there for all the terrible things that happened, but there must have been so much kitchen-sink sweetness and pleasure in Stefan’s life as Hannah grew up. He deserved that, and the reader deserved to share them with him.

There’s no mention of change in the political atmosphere regarding homosexuality in England either, even though Stefan doesn’t further that side of himself for many years, he would have—surely—noted the changes in the law as homosexuality finally became legal in 1967, even if it was only to himself. I’d expected this because Stefan was a Pole, and Poland (under Polish government) had no anti-homosexual laws.

Don’t get me wrong: even though I felt a lack of detail, this is still a beautifully written, thoughtful book. The ending sections, particularly, are touching and utterly believable. The theme that arises—although, once more, I would have liked a little more emphasis on the theme earlier in the book—of finding that  Stefan had begun to wonder if he had invented Gunther, to give his own life some focus, is warming and heartbreaking. I was happy for Stefan when I closed the book, but I wasn’t sobbing like a baby, and really—I think I should have been.

Considering it’s self-published it’s a bit of a jewel. The editing is top notch and the author has worked her socks off to get it in a state that—were it picked up by a mainstream publisher and i hope it might be—it would hardly need a comma moving.

It’s a challenging read, due to the subject matter, but don’t let that put you off. This book deserves as many readers as it can get and I look forward to a lot of eagerness to see what Ms Wallace comes up with next.

The author says she is negotiating to get the book into print format, but until then, there’s

Kindle  Smashwords

 

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