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Panorama: A Novel Hardcover – January 18, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
The first English-language translation of an opus by Adler (The Journey), Czech writer and Holocaust survivor, opens with the young Josef Kramer, at a "panorama," a rotating display of pictures of exotic places. The novel's structure imitates that of the panorama, each a snapshot of an epoch in Josef's life, from a neurotic childhood to a year in the countryside, then a period in a hellish boarding school. The most biting and amusing sections are Josef as a tutor in a wealthy and dysfunctional family and working at a frenetic "cultural center." Each episode ends with Josef drifting to sleep, trying to create internal order from chaos. War comes and two sections deal with Josef as a forced laborer and his time in concentration camps and his reflecting on his life from self-imposed exile in Britain. Adler's writing is stream-of-consciousness, heavily philosophical, and the style changes as Josef matures. Adler's portrayal of daily life and a young man's existential maturation in the region of Bohemia between the wars is full of satirical and loving detail that turns grim in the Holocaust sections. But the long, clause-heavy sentences feel clunky in translation and make this book more fascinating as a treasure of cultural and literary history than as a purely narrative read. (Jan.)
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A Czech Jew who wrote largely in German and survived both Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, Adler is the author of a number of contemplative and variously challenging works of Holocaust witness, including The Journey (1962), which was recently translated into English for the first time. With this novel saturated with autobiography (the author’s phrase), Adler chronicles various moments in the life of protagonist Josef: unhappy childhood in Prague, brutish boarding school, teenage adventures in the bucolic Czech forest, political and bureaucratic frustrations as a young academic, and, finally, hardship and bleakness in a concentration camp. It is written in a captivating stream-of-consciousness style that wanders yet comes to circle certain salient observations, and readers may note stylistic and philosophical continuities between this and the work of W. G. Sebald, who claimed Adler as a major influence. But, in part, the beauty of this work is that it can’t be easily categorized: it’s not quite a bildungsroman; it’s delightfully if erratically satirical; it’s hauntingly bleak yet possesses echoes of the transcendent. This is an important book by an author who deserves not to be forgotten. --Brendan Driscoll
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"Panorama" is a large, epic-length book, divided not into chapters, per se, but rather into "stories". Each story is about the same character, Josef Kramer, who is born in Prague in 1910. The "stories" are written - and translated - in rather free-form style. The translator, in his notes, states that the text, as Adler wrote it and he translated it, "...long, streaming sentences build clause upon clause, in order to render the consciousness at work, narrating the novel as much as the events themselves." It's not the writing style that is the problem of "Panorama"; it is the "distance" from the material to the reader.
Each "story" is about Josef Kramer and follow him in age. However, the same secondary characters - always richly drawn - do not continue from story to story. It is almost as if Josef Kramer is "reborn" in every story; an orphan in terms of who he takes along with him. After the first story, which is beautifully written about his early years, his parents, relative, and friends seem to "disappear". The second story tells of his life for a year or so in a small Czech village, living on a farm. No characters continue from first to second story and its the same for the rest of the book. I assumed they would all turn up in the final couple of stories, but basically they didn't. We - the reader - don't find out the fates of those people who Josef has met and influenced and been influenced by. The "orphaning" of Josef left him a cold and distant figure. I ASSUME Adler meant to write him that way, and maybe it was his way of dealing, in 1947, with what he has been through. But it leaves an almost empty main character. Did Josef leave any impression on others?
The distance of the main character is not a problem if the reader approaches the book simply as a story of one man's life from childhood to middle age. It's a compelling story and Adler is a brilliant writer, and Filkins is a brilliant translator. I only wish I was left with more of an understanding of Josef Kramer and the people around him.