Those who are fans of Charlie Brooker, and the Black Mirror series in particular, will know immediately which episode I’m referring to when I say the one about the ‘roaches’ (‘Men Against Fire‘). I found this episode deeply troubling, not because it canvasses the potential brutality of the future, but because it evokes the present (the war on ‘terror’) and the immediate past – the holocaust.
This Black Mirror episode reverberated in my head as I read Stephan Collishaw‘s The Song of the Stork. There seemed many parallels between the book and Men Against Fire, sharing similar imagery (forests, ruined houses) and themes (brutality, empathy, survival).
Collishaw’s novel is set in the Suwalke Forest at the Polish/ Lithuanian border in the 1940s, just as Nazi Germany is rolling back the Russian Army. As the German soldiers advance into this territory, they bring with them their genocidal assignment. Yael is at the centre of this story – a 15 year old Jewish girl who flukishly escapes the slaughter of her village by seeking sanctuary in the surrounding forest. The novel traces her survival in the forest, her refuge with the village eccentric, Aleksei, and her collaboration with the Jewish partisans resisting the German advance.
The Song of the Stork is not a light read, but given it’s subject matter, it’s not bleak – and this is an important point of distinction between it and Black Mirror. The war and its atrocities are an evident backdrop but aren’t despairingly overwhelming. There are splinters of hope, as well as moments of redemption. I spoke with Stephan about how he managed to steer this course, maintaining this balance between grim history and hope.
He answers without hesitation, ‘It’s important to retain the humanity. I didn’t want to get bogged down in the facts and the statistics or the hugeness of the horror, as that detracts from the fact that these were just ordinary people, everyday people, just like us. It’s important to retain the sense that this was just one person trying to survive as best they could in these extreme circumstances. The unspoken horrors lie outside the novel, and that’s where I wanted them to lie. I didn’t want to look full-on at those things.’ He pauses and sighs, ‘I mean, how do you portray the nature of what happened?’
I’m speaking to Stephan over the phone as I try to cool down after a warm Melbourne day, and I assume he’s trying to warm up on a Nottingham morning. I ask the somewhat predictable question about the genesis of the novel. He answers that it came in the form of Aleksei, the ‘meshugener‘, or the crazy person of the village. Aleksei is a mute, and is treated with deep suspicion by his neighbours. When Yael first presents herself at his door after weeks of being on the run and near starvation, he refuses to help:
The mute’s finger stabbed at the lower half of the page… She read it swiftly. Her heart quickened and she felt her face flush. The Jews were filthy vermin, it stated simply, and anybody found guilty of harbouring them, feeding them on or any way aiding them would be summarily executed.
In time though, Aleksei does permit her into his cottage, hiding her when the Einsatzgruppen come knocking.
The two become closer and eventually form a sexual relationship, problematic given Yael’s age and vulnerability. It is this flawed texture of the characters that make the book so engaging. As Collishaw states, ‘moral ambiguity is at the heart of the novel. All of the characters here are morally challenged. Whenever we get faced with situations of pure evil, we tend to want to have an opposing pure goodness on the other side. But in this war there were ordinary people making ordinary choices and many times, those making ordinary choices were very conflicted, at times heroic, but also problematic. All the characters have moments where their behaviour is problematic – so while there are clear villains, there aren’t necessarily any clear heroes. They have their own flaws as well’.
In the last third of the novel, Yael finds herself taken in by a group of partisans. I found this fascinating as, perhaps embarrassingly, I’d not realised there was such a movement. Stephan addresses this and makes me feel slightly better: ‘we have a general conception that the Jews went to their death like lambs to the slaughter. Really exploring the Jewish partisan movement and their heroic struggles fighting in extraordinary challenging circumstances is something that isn’t talked about as much as it should be. We tend to think of the partisans as an homogenous unity, but there was a huge amount of diversity in opinion – there were socialists, anarchists, communists and Zionists’.
Collishaw has done a fine job of balancing historical reality with the license of fiction, the grim facts of the holocaust with the poignancy of love, and through all it, he manages to offer a sense of optimism. His writing is unadorned; events speak for themselves. And without giving anything away, I enjoyed that Collishaw resisted packaging up the ending palatably. In situations such as these, how can things end neatly? For such a slim novel, The Song of the Stork provides quite a gripping and nuanced insight into this episode of recent history.
As we finish up our conversation, I just have to ask Stephan about his current tea of choice: ‘I drink way, way too much tea. In fact, my doctor told me to cut down my tea – it was like a hammer blow… But, PG Tips does me. I’ve always been an abuser of tea, as opposed to a connoisseur’. I bemoan the fact that I now struggle to enjoy tea bags (it can make life awkward you know). He laughs again, ‘You’re like one of those high-class drug addicts and I’m like one of those drinkers on the corner’.
It’s quite an analogy, but if embracing PG Tips tea meant I could write a book like The Song of the Stork, I’d be drinking it by the bucketload.
I was given a free copy of The Song of the Stork by Legend Press in exchange for an honest review.