Hanna Krall · women in translation month

Chasing the King of Hearts

She offers an author in Poland a nice honorarium. The woman writes a book but it does not meet Izolda’s expectations. Not enough feeling. Not enough love, loneliness and tears. Not enough heart. Not enough words. Not enough of everything, simply not enough.

Auto-reference. Chasing the King of Hearts is very much the book these lines describe – no excessive feelings, no unnecessary words. 101 short chapters written in dry sentences tell a story of a woman committed to saving her husband’s life – getting him out of Warsaw ghetto, then from Auschwitz and finally from Mauthausen. She’s changing her identity as she finds suitable, she sells tobacco and bacon (also cyanide) so she can send food packages to her beloved, she goes through tortures and work camps to get to him. There’s nothing she won’t do because he is all that matters. (Him… For him… He…) It’s Second World War but it’s just something that is happening, a thing that’s standing between her and her husband. She is not the one to live the life that’s constantly being imposed upon her. She acts.

Her husband, on the other hand, is passive. Their first meeting actually foreshadows it:

A young man is standing by the stove, warming his hands on the tiles. He’s tall and slender, with straight, golden hair. His hands have a golden tinge. When he sits down he spreads his legs and drops his arms – non-chalantly, almost absent-mindedly. His hands just hang there, helpless, and even more beautiful.

I found the “Armchair” chapters particularly strong. Ten of them in total, they are older Izolda’s commentaries, remembrances, and thoughts. The war is long over, she’s recollecting, questioning, wondering what if… What’s in these chapters is heavier than anything she’s been through during the war, and these chapters communicate directly with the last chapter in the book, The Party, that is so masterfully realized.

In one of her interviews, Hanna Krall said she is not a writer. Writers are those who create worlds and populate them. She is a reporter. Chasing the King of Hearts is not fiction, it’s the world created by someone else. She listened and wrote it down…

Well, I do beg to differ with Hanna – a writer is also someone who knows how to write a story somebody else told and she definitely is one such writer.