During my teens and twenties I gorged on Holocaust books until I could read no more, sickened to a point of no return. The depravity of that particular period and its effect on me made me swear never to read one again, and I never did.
I also avoid holocaust-themed movies and particularly the recent slew superficial ‘holocaust porn’ fiction like that Tattooist of Auschwitz book who’s insulting plot left me brooding darkly for days (I didn’t read it, but read reviews describing it in execrable detail).
And so when iconic cartoonist and writer Dov Fedler (a friend) and his daughter, writer Joanne Fedler (a friend) asked me to take a look at their joint effort, Gagman, I bowed out apologetically. I could simply not deal with its background and catalyst.- the camps of the holocaust.
Also, I try not to review books by friends. But the authors are not just friends, they are dear friends. So I relented and read it over the last few days.
The book is a soaring achievement, a great unrestrained explosion of creative imagination. Part novel, part history, part polemic, part graphic novel, part comedian’s philosophical musings, part confessional, part autobiography.
It is, by design, outside of any easily defined genre.
At is core, it is the story of one man, a minor conman and wiseguy who survives the camps by making the sadistic commandant laugh everyday. By telling jokes.
If he ever stops being funny, he dies. If he is funny, the commandant kills other Jews, but not our Gagman. And so he survives, day by day, as his campmates die around him, killed because of his comic survival skills.
The plot would be clever if it stopped here, but the (short) book grows other layers. The gagman’s relationship with the commandant morphs into an important and surprising climax (I won’t spoil.)
Our hero escapes the camp, meets Goering, finds his way to New York, and hangs on to life. He finds at least some redemption, not though faith, but through his adulation of the comic book hero Superman (created in real life by two Jews from Cleveland) and eventually and definitively from continuing to share his gift of making people laugh.
This book is a entirely new and wildly inventive addition to the canon of ‘serious’ Holocaust literature, notwithstanding that it boasts Jewish humour as its psychic fuel, and it deserves a wide readership.
It now increasingly stocked in various Holocaust and similar museum bookstores worldwide, but sadly not yet with national or international retail bookstores. If you want to read it, ask your bookstore to order though Protea Distributors.
It is an important book. Even if you, like me, cannot bear to read anything related to that sad time. Make an exception of this one.
Review by Steven Boykey Sidley, first posted on the Good Book Appreciation Society FB page