Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor
The Cello Of Auschwitz :The Truth Has Arms And Legs By Alice Fowler
The title of Alice Fowler’s new short story collection embodies an act of liberation: the tales within its otherwise wide-angled compass share one over-arching theme, that of affirmation, of finding and asserting a best sense of self, often in the most difficult of circumstances. That the central protagonists of her narratives are women enables Fowler to frame a picture whose resolution, in each case, amounts to a promulgation of strength and identity in a universe where men are rediscovered, often, as helpmeets and counter-intuitive guides. The writer builds a delicate framework of growing self-realisation into something robust and forward-looking, and in so doing, usurps the territory on which the acme of male intention is supposed to be predicated.
To say Fowler’s stories are heartwarming would be a triumph of generalisation: subtle, profound, troubling, and construed, frequently, in the lingua franca of the context to which they are exposed, they illuminate a way of seeing, or rather feeling, that is as wise as their dramatis personae are emotionally intelligent. From the opening tale of a young gypsy girl whose winning of a race in the face of institutionalised prejudice renders the reader breathless (‘The Race’), to the leatherback turtles whose resilience effects a much-needed epiphany in two holidaymaking parents (‘Something You Need to Know’), Fowler’s lens refracts the light of hope on to low cloud, and confers energy on inertia.
The learning process is a constituent of Alice Fowler’s approach; the acquisition of self-knowledge leads, sometimes, to the transfiguring of character. The study in manners and on-board charlatanry in a London-bound railway carriage of the late Victorian period, in ‘A Strange Case of the Railway Madness’, is rendered in a self-consciously elegant formal language that mirrors the era in which it is set. We can forgive the cod-scientific credulity of Miss Annie Bretherton – early alumnus of Oxford’s Somerville Hall – on the grounds that we have faith in her youthful brilliance; as the measure of any of her contemporaries, we know that she will succeed in despite.
Which seems to be Alice Fowler’s point: throughout this fine, in many ways traditional storytelling opus, the lesson Annie Bretherton learns, of coming to terms with her own limitations, is a considered and well-judged conceit, near fabular in the extrapolation of moral and ethical purpose.
Of the two stories dealing with mental decline, the first – ‘Here’s to You, Mrs Avery’ – is a painstakingly authentic depiction of the retreat towards dementia of Patricia, whose encroaching bewilderment and entertaining of shadows punctuates a resilient, if embattled, journey of dignity. The moment of salvation, so integral to Fowler’s mandate, emerges when, apropos of an upcoming celebration (the reader wrongly infers a significant birthday), we learn that Patricia is to be the first recipient of the Covid vaccine, a singular beacon, a ‘name now synonymous with hope’. For Cassie, the early-onset dementia sufferer of ‘Hurry Up and Brush Your Feet’, whose story is measured in the often sad, sometimes funny associative dislocations of nominal aphasia, the close, if fractious, relationship with her sons is her anchor. And, in a characteristic narrative sleight-of-hand, the anticipated self-centred complacency of the teenage boys, turns into something approximating to love. Fowler’s final paragraph swallows expectation in a collective
‘Perhaps it didn’t matter that she told her boys to brush their feet or scrub their teeth. Whatever future lay ahead, she would face it, with her two sons at her side.’
The final, and most affecting, story in a compelling and satisfying collection, removes the landscape to Berlin in 1942. A persuasively researched and profoundly moving examination of the final days of freedom of a Jewish family in Germany, the book’s title story, conceived in the first person of the narrator, Elli, is unavoidably reminiscent of Anne Frank’s diary account of her final years. The claustrophobia, the sense of foreboding, the schlepping from garret to attic to cellar to avoid detection, are drawn starkly and candidly and with a jaundiced eye turned on the makeshift detail of transit. Fowler draws the place and the moment with utter conviction, not least behind the gates of Auschwitz six months on, in April, 1943. That Elli survives the ordeal, as her family perishes, is testimony to an existential urge for freedom, bound in music and a place where ‘swifts and swallows fly, soaring in ever-changing shapes across the sky’. The good fortune of her ability to play the cello – the Nazis’ weakness for classical music reserved a small number of Jewish musicians for purposes of entertainment – proves to be Elli’s salvation.
The beautifully realised closing scenes of ‘The Truth has Arms and Legs’, set in the Konzerthaus, Berlin in 1995, restore Elli to her rightful place on the world’s stage, feted in the city whence she was transported fifty years earlier. With the heaviest of ironies, the sign at the entrance to Auschwitz promised ARBEIT MACHT FREI
(Work Sets You Free), which is finally true for the now middle-aged Elli:
“Arbeit macht frei
, I answer back, and the voice goes quiet and falls away. For truly, I am free.”
The Truth has Arms and Legs
is published by Fly on the Wall Press (2023). More information here.