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pollak's arm

26 february 2022

Pollak's Arm – Hans von Trotha's recent novel, now translated by Elisabeth Lauffer – is a work of suspense that works equally well if the suspense is spoiled (in other words, it would repay re-reading). I will spoil the suspense in this review, but you could do the same simply by Googling the novel's protagonist, so it's your choice: read on, or bookmark, or pass.

Ludwig Pollak is that protagonist, a real historical figure who dealt in antiquities and was an expert at identifying at cataloguing them, active in Rome in the first half of the twentieth century – and then, seized in the Nazi deportation of Roman Jews in 1943, and murdered at Auschwitz. The narrator of the novel is called simply "K." Since Pollak's roots were in the Jewish community in Prague, one can't help but think of his story, told by "K.," as Kafkaesque from the outset.

K. has been sent by papal officials to offer Pollak and his family sanctuary in the Vatican City. Pollak isn't so sure. He goes back and forth between fatalism and disbelief in his own danger. Surely someone as eminent as Ludwig Pollak has nothing to fear. (Rather like Tristan Bernard, who under similar circumstances in France is supposed to have said "They don't arrest people who are listed in the Petit Larousse.") Pollak never leaves with K. Instead, he tells the younger man his life story.

Honored in his youth and middle age by aristocrats and great bourgeois collectors, Pollak became a lion of the Roman antiquities world before the First World War, when he was expelled from Italy – as an Austrian subject he was an enemy alien. Returning after the war, he explains to K., he watched his fortunes take a long downward slide. At first even Mussolini appreciated his work, but as repressive measures against Jews tightened in Fascist Italy, Pollak's influence and stature shrunk correspondingly. Now he is just minutes from deportation and death, but he has lost the will to resist barbarism.

Above all, Pollak is associated with the great statue grouping of Laocoön and his sons, in the Vatican museum. He found the title piece of the sculpture, the posture of which turned the figure of Laocoön from a noble striver into a crushed figure of despair. In turn, Pollak comes to identify with Laocoön. "Whether one is fighting death or certain death," he tells K., "makes all the difference" (98). Despite the offer of refuge in the Vatican, Pollak senses that this time, death is certain, not to be deferred. How will he choose to re-enact the narrative of the artwork he prizes most?

Laocoön's sons die with him, of course, and that detail, echoed in K.'s story, becomes a false note in Pollak's Arm. Pollak is an old man, he has given up: that much is believable. Given up not so much out of personal fatigue as from a sense that the world will never get any better, and one is hard-pressed to say that von Trotha's Pollak is wrong about that. Still, his wife, daughter, and son are supposed to be asleep elsewhere in the apartment. Even a defeated father and husband would usher his family out the door with K., to safety. But Pollak barely mentions his family, suggesting only that they are more tired than he is, and he does not want to wake them up; they sleep through the entire novel. I don't buy it, and I guess the device has to be ascribed to the symbolic parallel of the fictional family here and the famous family in statuary.

(I'm talking about fictional, aesthetic matters here; historically there is no doubt that the entire Pollak family was deported and murdered. But in real life one imagines that they would have seized at any means of escape, and also that none were forthcoming, no lifeline from the Vatican being extended. The situation is fictional but also somewhat unbelievable, and it is a weakness in the book.)

Pollak's forays in the intellectual infrastructure of the art world are fascinating, though, as are his descriptions of a world turning from mutual multicultural respect toward fanaticism, nationalism, and brutality. As a novel of ideas, Pollak's Arm is compelling; as a novel of inhumanity, it is saddening. It arrives at a juncture in European history where there is little cause for optimism, and it offers little hope except for the refuge of art itself.

Trotha, Hans von. Pollak's Arm. [Pollaks Arm, 2021.] Translated by Elisabeth Lauffer. New York: New Vessel, 2022.