Piotr Rawicz and his novel
Piotr Rawicz wrote two books. On the strength of the first one, Le Sang du ciel, which was published in English as Blood from the Sky in 1964 and later translated into at least twelve other languages, he is regarded by his faithful readers as a great writer who has made a major contribution to French and European literature, as well as to what has become known as Holocaust literature. Apart from his two books, his literary journalism and a handful of prose poems, the writing of this exceptional individual was confined to a private journal in several languages – which has never been published or even edited.
Piotr Rawicz was born in what is now L’viv (Lvov and before that L’wow and earlier Lemberg), Ukraine, on 12 July 1919, during a brief and doomed attempt to establish a West Ukraine People’s Republic. Rawicz’s birthplace had been the capital of East Galicia, the easternmost province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Between the two world wars it was part of independent Poland. His father, Salomon, was a lawyer and active in the city’s Jewish communal organisations. Piotr was the youngest of three children. A member of a cultivated and relatively assimilated family, the young man studied law and oriental languages at the University of L’wow, where he met his future wife, Anna. These studies took place against the background of the Soviet occupation of the region in 1939, following the Nazi-Soviet pact, and later the German invasion in 1941.
At some point in 1941 or 1942, Rawicz went on the run with Anna but, after a year of wandering, was arrested by the Gestapo in the Polish city of Zakopane during a round-up of Jews. Under interrogation and torture he revealed no names and, thanks to a fake medical certificate, managed to explain away his circumcision. A small mezuza (encased Jewish ritual parchment affixed to doorposts) had been sewn into his jacket for luck, but he accounted for this by saying that he had purchased the garment on the black market and not noticed the incriminating object. In the end, he was deported to Auschwitz as a Ukrainian political prisoner. Rawicz was an inmate of Auschwitz for more than two years. Officially he was not Jewish – although some had their suspicions. (In the very different circumstances of the Italian Resistance, Primo Levi, when captured, owned up to being Jewish. He was deported to Auschwitz, and lived to tell the tale -- in one of the great books of 20th century literature. Had he not admitted to being Jewish, he would have been shot).
It was Rawicz’s personal experiences under the German occupation in ghettos and while on the run which inform much of Blood from the Sky. Certain scenes in the novel are based on real events in the camps, but they are not set there. Indeed, Rawicz makes only fleeting allusions to the camps in the book but, as in Aharon Appelfeld’s novels, there are good reasons for this reticence, and Auschwitz (that universally employed emblem for genocide) shadows every moment of the narrative, back-shadows our interpretation as we read the story. In the phrase used by astronomers, Auschwitz is the ‘event-horizon’ of the novel. Rawicz himself was the first to admit that, although being a slave labourer was no picnic, his experience of the camp was not the worst possible: he actually received letters and parcels from Anna, who had managed to avoid arrest and, able to pass as a Polish gentile, survived the war in Kraków. In 1944, Rawicz was transferred from Auschwitz to Leitmeritz, a concentration camp near Theresienstadt, where he stayed until liberated in 1945.
After the war, Rawicz lived and worked in Poland, where he became a journalist and wrote poetry. He married Anna, and, thanks to scholarships that would enable him to study at the Sorbonne and the School for Oriental Languages in Paris, came to France in 1947, where he lived for the rest of his life. He took degrees in Hindi and Sanskrit; later he learned Hebrew, Yiddish, and English. He already spoke several other languages. The blurb of the first printing (but dropped in later reprints) of the book in Paris states that this is the first novel he wrote directly in French, suggesting that he abandoned previous work, possibly written in his native Polish. I once remarked to Aharon Appelfeld that it was quite impressive to have written a novel in one’s sixth language. He replied that in the part of Europe Rawicz (and he) came from even the peasants spoke six languages. Yes, I replied, but they didn’t write great novels, or even bad novels. Touché, said Appelfeld, author of more than one great novel himself. The plain truth is that to write one masterpiece, as Rawicz did, is a rare achievement, whether the author is a polyglot or not.
From 1949 till 1953 Rawicz worked as a diplomatic correspondent for various foreign newspapers and for a while was press attaché to the Polish legation in Paris. Then came what he called ‘the lean years – thirty thousand difficulties, work as translator, as chauffeur, meat salesman, periods of destitution’ (jacket of first UK edition of Blood from the Sky). Despite some German reparations, penury was his lot during the 1950s, and he lived the life of a left-bank Bohemian, which, however, suited him very well.
Rawicz throughout this vie de bohème cultivated a persona of Oblomov but appearances were deceptive – an understatement in the case of Boris, the main character in Blood from the Sky – and, at some point in the late fifties, Rawicz finally began work on his only novel. It was published by Gallimard in 1961 and received the 1962 Prix Rivarol for the best book written in French by a foreign national. Given its black humour and sexual candour, if the book had been published even a few years earlier it would certainly have been misunderstood, but Le Sang du ciel was very well received in France and Israel, and later in Britain and America. The timing was accidentally right: it came out after the second editions of the two great classics of concentration camp and slave labour literature, Robert Antelme’s L’Espèce humaine (1957; finally translated as The Human Race, 1992) and Primo Levi’s Se questo è un uomo (1958; translated and published in the UK as If This is a Man, 1959, and published in the USA as Survival in Auschwitz in 1961). The second editions of these key works of 20th century literature heralded a great wave of books and films and other works. This was the moment (the reasons why belong in another essay) when the floodgates opened, and they have never closed.
Leading French critics and reviewers – including Maurice Nadeau, Jean-Bloch Michel, and Jacqueline Piatier – understood that an important new author had arrived on the scene. Another distinguished writer ploughing the same killing fields, Anna Langfus, conducted an extraordinary interview with Rawicz, revealing a total non-meeting of minds and radically different literary aesthetics. Surely unique in tone, the interview ends with a mutual trading of insults. Piotr, not for the first or the last time in his life, did not cover himself with glory where the ladies were concerned, although Langfus was almost unique in being unforgiving. Theodore Solotaroff, in a 1964 review reprinted in his book The Red Hot Vacuum, wrote that Rawicz’s novel is ‘the most freely created and brilliant treatment of the ontological issues that I know of in this literature. It seems less like a novel than a testament that has been written under a spell – so esoteric and multiple and yet so coherent is Rawicz’s imagination of the Jewish terror and the world’s disaster’.
The main events of the novel take place during the German occupation of East Galicia, inside and outside the newly established ghettos. On the run, the central character, Boris, rich and aristocratic, is faced with dreadful situations and decisions. But he is fortunate: apart from his circumcision -- the sign of the covenant which writes him into the community of Jewish fate -- he could pass for a non-Jew, thanks to his blond hair and his linguistic abilities across several languages in addition to what would have been the giveaway lingua franca of the local Jews, Yiddish. Before the war, his tireless penis had symbolized life for Boris, had activated ‘the world history of his soul’, in Kafka’s phrase. But now, in the dire circumstances of a murderous occupation, the party is over. If Boris (and the book) is to live, he must change utterly, and confront the omnipresent danger of slavery and death in the impending genocide. Such radical change implies living up to his responsibilities as a human being, for a change...
Boris is a clever, civilized, sensitive but not particularly likeable man, an intellectual, a poet, a lover, and a Jew. His saloon-bar philosophy is redolent of existential disgust, his undistinguished poetry reveals late symbolist excess, his libido amounts to a Don Juan replay, his Jewishness amounts to nothing more but also nothing less than an awareness of the destiny of his fellow Jews and Jewesses, whose faces and/or accents and/or behavioural traits give them away to collaborators or Nazi occupiers sooner rather than later. What he shares with other male Jews, engraved in his flesh, remains at the heart of the book. The penis, for a great, if traditional, lover like Boris, was the sign of life. Now it is the sign of death.
Despite being one of the most hyper-intelligent and quick-witted characters in all literature, none of his resources equip him to understand what is happening to his people (even the minority among them who are lucid and undeceived have little or no chance on the margins of absolute evil where the enemy holds all the cards), for nothing can and no one can. Rather than indulge in reductive explanations or waste time attempting to make sense of the radical evil being visited upon his world, he moves quickly to a stark confrontation with the naked ugliness of Nazi ambition and arrives at his rendezvous with truth and destiny. Time has short-circuited his old ways. There now has to be more to life than philosophical disgust and sexual love. On the margins of the absolute – the indisputable reality of Nazi tyranny where choice is not even between greater and lesser evils but equal evils, that is to say where morality has been murdered – his only freedom is an ancient Jewish obligation in times of trouble: to survive the worst actively or, more likely, passively, come through, remember and tell. But first, as a wise Jewish crone tells him, he will have to endure mental and physical extremity. The author’s writing of this book enables the character’s freedom to tell his story and the character’s freedom to tell the story enables the author’s writing of this book. At the interface of author and character is the frame narrator who has been editing Boris’s manuscript.
Even before the occupation and the setting up of ghettos in an unnamed area (which is clearly East Galicia), Boris knows there is no hope at all for the Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe. Rawicz has constructed the story in such a way that Boris’s awareness of impending genocide does not appear to the reader to be predicated upon authorial hindsight – this despite our proleptic awareness right from the start of the book that Boris will survive the deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau hinted at in the coda (‘The Great Plain of the Birches’: birches = Birkenau). Prolepsis is a traditional fictional device of course. The narrator, a café owner, hooks the reader, who then enters the hero’s multilayered world (cut into shape, circumcised if you like, from his unedited notebooks, another traditional device cunningly and daringly deployed by Rawicz). The telling of this world has elements of the thriller, the horror story, the adventure tale, the metaphysical fable. But what we discern is that the character’s fate is to ensure that his memory shall salvage – on paper at least – a town and its people, because his mind manages to transcend a body that experiences a hallucinatory and phantasmagoric world of putrefaction, cockroaches, king rats, and bedbugs as well as a real world of imprisonment, cruelty and suffering.
Deploying the full resources of self-interested native intelligence, he must become a witness: this involves being faithful to his origins and, for the first time in his life, being faithful to a partner, the long-suffering fifteen-year-old Naomi. Boris, much to his regret, must abandon sexual adventurism and betrayal – not because these are immoral in some absolute sense or cause pain to the partner, but because they would put his and her life at risk: consciousness of prick rather than prick of conscience (my use of chiasmus involves a buried French pun on ‘consciousness/conscience’, since in French the latter is a polyseme also meaning the former). Boris must live each moment as a Marrano (‘I is another’), carry the past of his community through a long night and a long journey, until eventual liberation. He must exist over time, the time of our reading, and survive simultaneously the German occupation and the narrator’s editing. To remember, Boris must survive. To survive, he must remember. Rawicz himself recapitulates this process through engaging with the difficult freedom of literature, through the very writing of the disaster. Somehow he found the powers within himself to raise his game and render the process of survival in extremis possible in literary form. Perhaps he freed himself to live less intensely henceforth. Futile, therefore, to regret that Blood from the Sky was his only novel. Let us be grateful that he delivered one treasure. This Orpheus was his own Eurydice.
Something that Rawicz personally experienced became the kernel of the amazing interrogation scene – presided over by an SS officer in occupied Poland – in which Boris out-argues a Ukrainian nationalist and ‘proves’ himself, for the time being, not to be Jewish. This is one of the great set pieces or tableaux in European literature and brings to mind both Kafka and Dostoevsky. Boris is a brilliant literary device: while we believe in him as a character with a plausible cocktail of traits that allow the story to develop, he is at the same time a human litmus for the worst of Europe, enabling the unflinching description of extreme situations, enabling the author to think atrocity. Boris’s personal destiny unfolds within the matrix of occupation, ghettoisation, flight, prison and flashbacked freedom.
There are five other fantastical set pieces that stand out in this story of doom and disaster. One of them centres on the torture – eye-gouging and tongue-cutting – of children, a scene in which all the dams of reticence and decency would surely be flooded in the hands of a lesser writer. But Rawicz is deeply aware of the dangers of voyeurism and avoids the associated moral traps, keeping us at a proper distance from the potential frisson of atrocity. Boris has no time for comparisons, anological understanding, and his notebooks are full of descriptions completely at odds with the real world he is enduring outside his feeble attitudinising as a philosopher and poet. And yet we read a sentence with an image from childhood which plunges into us like a dagger or, indeed, like a syringe: ‘it wasn’t until two hours later that Boris returned to the same spot, together with a nurse armed with a syringe. Several mutilated children were still suffering. The nurse went around, distributing death, like portions of gingerbread stuffed with darkness’. I don’t know if they had gingerbread men in Poland as we do here, but children everywhere do love gingerbread (not least the children in some camps who played a game they called ‘going to the gas chamber’), and the only mercy in this book is administered by lethal syringe.
In another of the five episodes Boris witnesses a scene through a window, a scene so shocking that he and the reader have to be rescued by a violent slap to his (and our) faces by an intelligent German soldier who thinks Boris is a non-Jew and likes him and wants to rescue him from the potentially fatal consequences of his discovery. Steven Jaron, with whom I have discussed this and other episodes, said I should describe the scene, but like Bartleby, ‘I would prefer not to’. Rawicz’s text, a baroque novel doubling as a philosophical poem even while pretending not to be, is a precursor of the self-referential postmodern novel: desire, mind, writing, body, utterance, all merge and collapse, as in a kaleidescope. The postwar frame narrative, set in Paris, includes poems and parodies of Boris’s poems, philosophical speculation and parodies again, footnotes and parodic footnotes, digressions, quotations and accounts of the process of (de)composition. A classic ‘alienation’ technique, it does its best to confuse, slow down, and destabilise the broken tale told by Boris, now in the first person, now in the third person. These aspects of the novel contribute to what can be called the as-if detachment of the author, a contract with himself to distance the horrors, out of respect for the victims but also for his readers. The writer cannot play down the horror as such, but to avoid domestication on the one hand and rejection on the other, he has to alienate the reader by using his skills to prevent fetichisation of the image. Thus, technique is a branch of ethics. The two discourses – frame narrative and Boris’s own story – form a subtle counterpoint, and the resulting dialectical tension generates a synthesis which is one of the truly liberating achievements in the literature of atrocity (a territory fraught with danger and responsibility), indeed in the postwar European novel altogether. Rawicz’s American publisher, Helen Wolff, considered it the best book of its kind, ‘the only one that totally transmutes the actual events into a dark poetry.’
The novel, almost despite itself, is a lateral expression of deep spirituality, its template Jeremiah and the Book of Lamentations. The Ukraine and Poland of the novel are a late mutation of East European Hasidism and the traditional Jewish world that was in the process of vanishing even before the coup de grâce represented by Hitler. But there is no nostalgia in Boris’s task of remembrance. Rather, the suggestion is that the writer must ‘keep watch over absent meaning’, in the crucial phrase of Maurice Blanchot, and such remembrance of the worst in human experience is a task incumbent on anyone who wishes to imagine and help bring about the best. Rawicz’s rage is displaced and projected onto a character whose survival gives us reason to believe that the passion to remember, informed by intelligence, is a major component of the minimal hope without which civilization will surely destroy itself, a process already heralded by man-made disasters and crimes, not least Hitler’s. Without the passion to remember, Boris would not have found the strength within himself to survive. He is the vessel for the story that would have died along with him.
After he received the Prix Rivarol, Rawicz’s economic situation improved because French literary doors were open to him at last. He began writing major essays for Le Monde on important Slavic writers, such as the Polish Jewish writer, Adolf Rudnicki (whom he unsuccessfully promoted for the Nobel Prize) and the dissident Soviet novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose work he translated into Yiddish. Others included Danilo Kis, Andrei Sinyavsky, Witold Gombrowicz, S.I.Witkiewicz, and Slawomir Mrozek. He also wrote introductions to French editions of books translated from Slavic languages, and served on literary juries at home as well as in Germany, Britain, and Israel. His friends included Elie Wiesel, Julio Cortazar, Eugene Ionesco, Emile Cioran, André Schwartz-Bart, and Jerzy Kosinski, the last an author (along with Katsetnik 135633 and Arnost Lustig) of accounts of cruelty that we might want to compare with those of Rawicz. Piotr continued with his work as a journalist and critic throughout the last twenty years of his life, occasionally writing poetic texts in prose.
Rawicz received his French passport in 1966, at which point he felt safe to travel to Poland and revisit Auschwitz, as well as to see his aged father in Kraków, who had survived the war in a typically Rawiczian way – with a mistress in the mountain resort, Zakopane, where Piotr himself had been arrested. By now, his older brother was living in Chile, his sister in France. The May 1968 uprising in Paris profoundly affected him and triggered his second and final book, Bloc-notes d’un contre-révolutionnaire, ou la Gueule de bois (Notebook of a Counter-Revolutionary, or the Hangover), which was published in 1969 and remains untranslated apart from extracts I made which can be found in my book on Rawicz: ‘I consider myself to be an expert in defeats, a specialist in humiliations undergone’: the book examines its author in the context of his life and thought after the publication of Blood from the Sky. Although he rejected the radical political implications of the May events (his strong views are said to have resulted in a punch-up on air with Philippe Sollers in a television studio), Piotr Rawicz was both challenged and aroused by the romantic and ontological dimensions of the student rebellion, a ‘continuous carnival,’ in the phrase Czeslaw Milosz used in his review of the book in the Paris-based Polish-language magazine, Kultura. Rawicz wrote his text in the form of a collage of reflections by himself and friends, both real and imaginary. For the most part, it obtained good reviews, but it failed to achieve the critical acclaim of his first book.
Despite being separated and notwithstanding his sexual adventurism, he and his filmmaker wife, although they had no children, remained close; her death was undoubtedly a contributory factor, perhaps the main one, in his own death. ‘At sixty, what do you die of? Cancer or suicide,’ Rawicz once told a younger lover, accurately predicting the cause of his wife’s death as well as his own. Aged 62, he shot himself in the mouth – as had Romain Gary some two years earlier – on 21 May 1982, with a pearl-handled revolver he bought for the purpose from a shop near the Paris Bourse, while a friend waited in a taxi. No room for doubt or error there.
In the last few years Le Sang du ciel has at last begun to receive some attention in the critical literature; it has always been in print in France. The 1964 English-language hardback edition of Rawicz’s ‘wantonly brilliant novel’ (in the phrase of Irving Howe) was, however, long out of print and reissued in paperback only in 2003 in the USA (in the original translation) and now in 2004 in the UK in my edited version of the original translation. Rawicz’s instinctive balancing of literary virtuosity and extreme subject matter goes some way to explaining the impact of this deeply shocking and troubling work. Le Sang du ciel is existentially complex, indirect, and surrealistic, as well as being ‘often horrifyingly funny’ (Angus Wilson, quoted on the jacket of the UK edition). It re-presents terrifying and cruel historical events without complicity and without frisson. Few serious novels, even in the literature of the camps and ghettos of occupied Europe, contemplate such violence and cruelty so openly. Despite Rawicz’s use of deeply personal and historical material, this is not a fictionalized autobiography but a novel, for the author has succeeded in projecting beyond his own personal story and circumstances to create an everyman, a universal figure of suffering, albeit one clothed in a most singular outfit of inner and outer garments. ‘I am the man, I suffered, I was there’. Walt Whitman understood.
Primo Levi wrote to me that he found Rawicz’s novel – which I gave him as a present – too literary, just as, in the same letter, he found the novels of Katsetnik 135633 not literary enough. Who am I to disagree with Primo Levi? Stupid question, that would be Levi’s reaction: just make your case, Anthony. Well, I once tried to show how and why Levi himself misunderstood Celan’s poetry and Celan’s death. I hope the present essay on Rawicz demonstrates why the book has to be so ‘literary’. In Rawicz’s chosen territory – bearing what Milosz called the pressure of history on experience (what history!, what experience!) – the burden of commemoration can only be carried by a complex architectonic structure. This together with the apparent detachment mentioned earlier provide the only objective correlative available to the author to enable him to incarnate the terrible and unbearable reality: that of impending genocide. I have a suspicion that Levi -- like one distinguished reviewer who managed to praise Blood from the Sky highly without even mentioning the male organ at the heart of the book -- could not cope with the radical sexual aspect of the novel. Rawicz, hardly a practitioner of his ancestral religion but a believer in God, used to go to synagogue on Yom Kippur with Elie Wiesel when they were in the same town. I am certain Piotr would recite the oshamnu prayer (the acrostic collective confession of sins which must be atoned before you can be inscribed in the book of life) with great fervour.
Signs and wonders, says the psalmist. It remains to me a wonder and a miracle (is this the ‘miracle of work’ Max Jacob speaks of?) that Rawicz succeeded in writing a novel whose central figure and premise – the penis that is both sign of life and sign of death – not only does not cause the novel to self-destruct in disgrace, disgust and dishonour but, on the contrary, is so compellingly imbricated in a complex artistic structure and at the same time is so simple in its emblematic truth of the author’s covenantal experience as a Jew and a writer that, against the absolute disaster of nihilism and love of death represented by Nazi ambition, he generated a profound and elemental statement about human existence before blowing his brains out in an apartment on Boulevard Saint Michel.
Blood from the Sky is not a book for the squeamish or the lazy or the optimistic, but even one reading of it changes the reader and the reader’s perception of the world we have inherited: against the small hope generated by Rawicz’s having written the book at all, stands the large despair of the tremendum (in Arthur Cohen’s word), that experience beyond understanding, leaving our minds on fire before the burning bush wherein a historical caesura, which cannot be transcended let alone redeemed, is mouthed silently. The book is a gift to the world, a world made a little less unbearable because the author had the courage to bear the burden of history and suffering. This extraordinary novel, as singular as its author, cannot by itself give meaning to a crazy universe, but it helps render the absence of meaning less meaningless.
Note. I wrote this Afterword to my edition of Blood from the Sky in 2004 (see also my Engraved in Flesh: Piotr Rawicz and His Novel "Blood from the Sky" ). When ReadySteadyBook kindly offered to reprint it, I took the opportunity to make a few minor revisions and amendments. -- A.R. June, 2006
Reproduced with the kind permission of Elliott and Thompson and the author, Anthony Rudolf).