In the Land of Armadillos, by Helen Maryles Shankman, Scribner, 2016, Hardcover. 304 pp. $25. ISBN: 978-1-5011-1519-6
When it comes to the literature of the Holocaust, there can sometimes appear to be a glut of fiction written by those distant from it, too often revisiting the same bleak terrain of atrocity with the same tropes and sentiments. If you have felt the same, please be assured that Helen Maryles Shankman’s In the Land of Armadillos (due out early next month) is one of the most original and consistently captivating short story collections that I have read in recent years.
Among the eight stories that compose In the Land of Armadillos are a few that originally appeared independently, yet experienced together, the entire collection reads as a sophisticated orchestration; so tightly interwoven are its themes, characters, and grim events it is hard to imagine then apart from one another.
Each is set in the Polish hamlet of Wlodawa (with the exception of the volume’s brittle coda which takes place in the 1980’s); and all are so captivating and resonant that it is hard to single out just a few. These are strange stories in which the miraculous perseveres amidst the monstrous as their memorable protagonists struggle to cope with horrific realities.
A collection that depends on the reader’s acceptance of historical brutalities blended with the paranormal would seem an unlikely formula for success (only a very few, David Grossman, D. M. Thomas, André Schwarz-Bart, have attempted that with any success before), yet In the Land of Armadillos is an absolutely dazzling triumph.
In her title story, Shankman riffs intelligently and hauntingly on the demise of the famous visual artist and writer Bruno Schulz who was murdered at the hands of an S.S. officer who sought revenge for the slaying of his own “pet Jew.”
Though other writers have visited Schulz’ art and tragic death before (most notably Roberto Bolaño, David Grossman, and Cynthia Ozick), Shankman more than holds her own in rendering a Jewish muralist whose art is brimming with lyrically and morally potent allegories whose meaning eludes the understanding of his brutish captor. With each subsequent narrative, the moral and psychological structure of In the Land of Armadillos deepens and evolves into greater intricacy. Though unsparing in its depiction of atrocity, the most genuinely shocking developments are those that delve deep into the mysteries of betrayal, most conspicuously Jews by their Polish friends and neighbors.
Shankman imaginatively turns characters and events around and around, a multifarious reality encompassing the perspectives of Jews, Poles and even those of Germans, most strikingly the perceptions of Reinhart, the Nazi Kommandant (a lover of the land and agrarian life appointed as the Reich Regional Commissioner of Agricultural Products & Services).
Immune to the nonsense of racist theory, he likes to imagine that he presides over “his own Shangri-La, insulated from the insanity consuming the civilized world … except for the smell that floated in sometimes from the campo at Sobibór, only six kilometers away, a smell that didn’t belong among the fields, the farmers, the forests, and the plowed earth.”
In numerous passages, Shankman renders her topography in brilliant detail; her capacity for deftly merging horror and natural beauty throughout is concisely captured here, in the aftermath of a massacre: “When the first chilly breath of nighttime riffles through a young girl’s hair, even the sun shivers, withdraws its warmth, and slinks away.”
Many stories reward with ironic twists and indelible surprises, such as the revelation of the Golem’s true identity in a particularly poignant tale, and another where a 12-year-old boy vehemently argues about the fate of the world with the Messiah.
Still others are rendered in spare realism such as the chilly narrative in which the son of a Nazi scours the countryside of Wlodawa in search of atonement. Though each narrative revisits the same topos, Shankman constantly surprises us, outwitting us by defamiliarizing characters and scenes we thought we had fully grasped, again and again.
Every story presents its own mythical aura, lyricism, and horror. Even animals are given their due as in “The Jew Hater,” a remarkable tale about a hidden child’s poignant and eerie friendship with a feral dog.
“A Decent Man,” the collection’s penultimate story and perhaps its most audacious, explores many of the preceding events through the perspective of Reinhart who has the audacity to imagine that he has managed to preserve his humanity and integrity throughout the war, at least until certain events overtake him.
In the story’s ruthless denouement, his self-justifications are stripped bare, revealed as the dangerous illusions that he, like so many others, pathetically cleaved to until it was too late. In a book brimming with myths and fantasy, Reinhart’s fallacy emerges as the biggest fairy-tale of them all. By the time you finish reading it you will probably find yourself directly implicated by the searing moral questions Shankman so artfully raises.
Though this is a singularly inventive collection, if a comparison must be made, In the Land of Armadillos often chills with the stark realism of the best of Ida Fink’s spare masterpieces, albeit with the additional hallucinatory ingredient of top drawer magical realism.
In indelible ways, the entire collection interrogates the value of art, storytelling, and dreams in a time of peril. Hard truths that are presented with wisdom, magic, and grace.
Finally, for those interested in the growing corpus that has come to be known as “second-generation” Holocaust literature, it is worth noting that Shankman’s parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts are Holocaust survivors and many of the events she revisits are based on what they endured. She has honored them by distilling their harrowing memories into truly transformative literary art.
Editor’s note: Ranen Omer-Sherman’s latest book is Imagining the Kibbutz: Visions of Utopia in Literature & Film.