10 March, 2015

Spark of life by Erich Maria Remarque [Anita, Blockhouse Bay Library]

Set in a (fictitious) German concentration camp the narrative starts from the point of view of political prisoner 509. He has been there for 10 years surviving the hellish conditions. The main part of the camp is a labour camp but on the edge is Small camp where those too weak to work are sent to die. Most do, but there is a group of  veterans in Small camp who have persevered. . . "they didn't live longer because they had more to eat; they lived because they had preserved a desperate remnant of resistance." In the veterans' corner at this time lay a hundred and thirty four 'skeletons'. There was room for only forty. Fights for space, blankets and rations were common. We follow prisoners who work in the crematorium and other areas of the camp, see what happens in those places, and how deals are made for survival.

The author spent five years researching and writing this book and I feel he has done his best to get into the mindset of these prisoners (if that is possible), how survival is the only focus and even hope is a waste of energy. How time can stretch away forever but also how it can start to have meaning again when the neighbouring town is bombed and it becomes apparent that the war is not going well for the Germans. Now the challenge is to hold on until the liberation, or even find enough left in themselves to fight the Nazis so their suffering will not have been in vain.

There are chapters from the point of view the German guards and Commandant, a jarring contrast to  that of the prisoners. Death and brutality are so commonplace it no longer registers to them. In addition there are those who derive enjoyment from torment and torture, they do not see the prisoners as being human, more like objects that are disposable. With the enemy at the doorstep they react differently.  Some ratchet up the terror, no survivors means no witnesses, while the commandant has hopes of redeeming himself by acting more benevolent.

A compelling read, this book will stay in your mind for quite a while. The author Erich Maria Remarque was the author of the famous book "All Quiet on the Western Front".

Title: Spark of Life: a novel
Author: Erich Maria Remarque
Published: 1998
Publisher: New York : Ballantine
ISBN: 780449912515

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