My latest read in the Man Booker Prize winners list wasn’t a typical winner back in 1982. It caused somewhat of a controversy on its subject matter, although the controversy wasn’t about its frank and brutal depiction of the Holocaust, but rather because the events of the book were real historical events. Critics and judges alike asked themselves, was this historical fiction or a factual historical book?
It is certainly true that Thomas Keneally’s story isn’t a traditional narrative. It does read more like factual history. You know from the beginning what happens; a German-speaking Czechoslovakian businessman named Oskar Schindler managed to save around 1,000 – 1,200 Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis during the Second World War.
In my opinion however, it does feature the best of both formats. As a history book, it is well researched and possesses a strong attention to detail, such as explaining the hierarchical structure of the SS, the complex history of Central Europe and its Jewish population, and the system of occupation which the Nazis enforced on the conquered territories of Europe.
It also reads like a novel in that it has two central characters which tower over the story and drive it along. The fact that these characters were real people makes them the narrative even more engrossing. On the one hand, you have the hero of the story, Oskar Schindler. He comes across as a bit of wheeler-dealer, ducking and diving with the Nazi authorities, the SS and the Army. At first he seems content with exploiting the opportunities presented by the German occupation of Poland by setting up his own armaments company in Krakow, Poland. It is only when he meets Amon Goeth, the local SS group commander that is view of the war changes.
Goeth is a monster, no simple way about it. He is sadistic in his random killing of Jewish prisoners in his camp; he beats his servants; and uses sexual violence to against female prisoners. Goeth is the servant of death whose task is to rid Krakow of its Jewish population. He chooses not to see the Jews as human beings; therefore he is not bound by a code of humanity to treat them as human beings. He simply does with them as he pleases, or as the Nazi government orders him to. When Schindler sees the void of humanity in Goeth and his SS men, Schindler does the most human thing in such an unimaginable situation. He says enough is enough.
The pace of the story also feels like a novel. Towards the end, you just want the war to be over so Schindler and his workers can make it through the war. You already know that they survive, but Keneally wants you to will them on.
As a novel, it deserved to win the Booker Prize back in 1982. It is one of the most harrowing, shocking and inspiring stories I have ever read. Although it did leave me with one question in my mind after I read the last page; how close was Keneally’s imagining of Oskar Schindler to the real Schindler? Was he, as Keneally would have him, the lovable rogue with a heart of gold, or was there more to Schindler’s actions than meets the eye? All I know is that Keneally’s account of Schindler’s story is a harrowing tale of hope in the darkest period in the history of the world.