Much has been written about Hitler, the Nazis and the atrocities they committed leading upto and during the Second World War. Prior to this dark period, Europe was a great place to be in. Writers, artists, musicians, painters converged in many of these great cities to practice art and exchange ideas freely. Europe, in other words, was a melting pot of cultures. Writers, in particular, be they Jews, Czechs, Polish, Eastern European, flourished immensely during this golden period.
But then the Nazis came to power. And everything changed for the worse. Almost all the writers and authors sunk into oblivion as the war loomed large. Many were forced into exile. Others fled the continent to migrate to the United States and begin a new life there. There were also those who could not adjust to the new and grim reality and therefore chose to take their own lives. Stefan Zweig was one such prolific writer who committed suicide during this period (Wes Anderson’s superb film ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is inspired by Stefan Zweig’s writings).
But while these writers and their works vanished during those turbulent years, only in recent times have they begun to gain prominence thanks to the emergence of independent publishing houses and the growing output of translated literature.
Pushkin Press, NYRB Classics, Peirene Press to name a few are doing a great job in promoting translated literature and pulling out all these authors from obscurity so that their works can reach a wider audience today. And these efforts are worth it because so much of this output is astonishing.
Which brings me to the novella I’ll be reviewing; Egon Hostovsky’s The Hideout (nicely translated from the Czech by Fern Long). Unlike Zweig’s tragic fate, Hostovsky turned out to be luckier. He was a well-known writer in Czechoslovakia at the time but subsequently fled the Nazis and the Communists, and eventually settled in New York.
Here’s how the novel opens.
At last I can hope that someday you will learn the true facts of my strange story. The good people about whom I want to tell you promise me that they can take my notes somewhere to safety, somewhere beyond the ocean, perhaps, and give them to you after the war is over. You are still alive; I don’t doubt that for an instant, and you will be alive long after this awful storm of horror, madness and hunger has blown over.
It is a strange story indeed. When the narrator is writing this letter to his wife, he is doing so from the confines of a damp, dark cellar. He has time on his hands to think back on the events that led to his current predicament.
The narrator is shown to be in a happy marriage with his wife and their two daughters. He is an engineer by profession and is drawing blueprints for some anti-aircraft guns.
A dinner at their house sets the course for future events. The narrator’s boss is present as is a certain Madame Olga. The boss and the narrator get into an argument about the latter’s blueprints for those guns. The narrator decides to abandon the project because the Czech government is not interested and he is against selling it to other governments. Meanwhile, he develops a fascination for Madame Olga.
Madame Olga is based in Paris and the narrator one day decides to just give up his existing life and follow her there. Nothing much comes of their meeting. But the narrator learns that there is a warrant for his arrest by the Nazis mostly instigated by his boss, who it turns out was probably collaborating with the enemy.
And so the narrator’s plan to go back to his wife is derailed and he is forced to flee.
Eventually, he has no choice but to go in hiding and an acquaintance in the countryside puts him up in his cellar. By no means has he been put up there by physical force. He is not locked inside. He is free to leave whenever he wants.
But is he really free? Can he just leave his dismal abode and go about his life? As the novel progresses, the reliability of the narrator also comes into question. After all, he is no longer in touch with the outside world. Has that impaired his ability to perceive reality? Can he ultimately overcome his guilt of leaving his wife?
Alone, alone, always alone! My fear of death must have been stronger than my fear of emptiness, of constant hunger and cold.
At a mere 127 pages in the Pushkin Collection edition, The Hideout is absolutely brilliant and packs in quite a punch. The setting might be claustrophobic and yet there is a feverish, urgent and dream like quality to the writing. This propels the narrative at a breakneck pace.
It is also a novella that makes you think on the kind of extraordinary and tremendously difficult moments that those unwillingly caught up in the war had to face. It was not a war of their choosing and they had to dig deep into their reserves to survive and hope for a better life. During times of war, how often do we read about millions of lives being uprooted and multitudes being forced to flee? On paper, this looks like just another statistic but the difficulties and hardships that every family or individual faced were unique. The mind can barely begin to grapple them.
Of course, all this was during the rise of the Nazis and the Second World War. And yet, this is a novel that is very much relevant to our current times. It’s a different war this time, but the plight of the refugees and the immense hardships that displacement and uprootedness bring with them remain the same.