Babylon Laid Waste: A Journey in the Twilight of the Idols

by Brigitte Goldstein
Pierredor Books

book review by Nicole Yurcaba

“My thoughts wandered back to the time, so long ago, it seemed, at Frau Maibach’s pension and my discovery of the writer Franz Kafka.”

In 1946, Misia Safran, a highly talented, recognized writer and Jewish émigré, receives an alarming letter that claims her grandmother is still alive in a care facility in Berlin. Misia at first questions the reality of returning to a war-ravaged and ideologically divided Germany to save her grandmother, but despite her parents’ objections, she connects with a people-smuggling ring and acquires forged identity papers that launch her on a journey into the heart of the defeated Third Reich. However, Misia’s travels to Berlin are quickly interrupted. Just as her adventures using the false identity of Beate Hauser begin, Misia finds herself captured by the U.S. military and at the mercy of Major Emil Zweig in a camp for female Nazi war criminals.

Unwilling to reveal her true identity and true mission, Misia forms a relationship with Franticek Kafka—the dark, mysterious, self-confident former Jewish prisoner who intuits that Misia is a Jew posing as a German. As Misia struggles to make sense of her circumstances and to reconcile with herself for taking on the treacherous task of following the mysterious letter’s claim, she also embarks on a whirlwind romance with Franticek and dances into a dangerous realm where personal vendetta crosses with justice for the Jewish people.

At this book’s core is Franticek, a camp survivor and Hebrew speaker. He is also a Viennese Jew who once lived with the Wagnerian opera star Lenka Ostrova, a Bohemian-Jewish woman who scrubbed with a toothbrush the Viennese streets as Nazi-sympathizing hecklers laughed. This book’s invocation of the great German-speaking Jewish novelist and short story writer Franz Kafka as a parallel for Franticek adds even more complexity to his role and identity. In his May 29, 1914, diary entry, the novelist Kafka wrote, “I stare rigidly ahead lest my eyes lose the imaginary peepholes of the imaginary kaleidoscope into which I am looking, I mix noble and selfish intentions in confusion… I invite heaven and earth to take part in my schemes, at the same time I am careful not to forget the insignificant little people one can draw out of every side-street and who for the time being are more useful to my schemes.”

Like the beads in the real Kafka’s metaphorical kaleidoscope, Franticek’s character is fantastical, self-sufficient, and individualistic. He is heroic, mysterious, educated, and the lone wolf whose life circumstances have made it difficult for him to connect with others, an undecipherable myriad of traits and skills. Misia observes that Franticek “embedded his story within the overall fate of his people” because “his experience, as he presented it, was emblematic of that of all tormented Jews.” Furthermore, his torments mirror those of not only war-destroyed Europe and the Jewish people but also that of Misia, who states, “And to that end, I had no choice but to hitch my fate to the goodwill of this strange man who called himself Kafka.”

Misia struggles with balancing her real identity and her fake identity as Beate Hauser, and she often finds herself in an internal game of who is really who. However, for Misia, it’s not only a matter of names but also a question of Jewish-American identity, which often forms an incredible chasm between her and Franticek, especially as the latter embarks on his vendetta which involves the slaying of the former Wagnerian opera star Elfriede Kling. These chasms make Misia an impressionable but willing-to-question student for Franticek, especially in the field of clandestine survival in enemy territory, an area that often causes Misia moral anxiety and makes her question the person that she has become, particularly in her acceptance of violence.

Misia—because of her emotional and personal strength, her resilience, her adaptability, and her intellect—becomes an admirable heroine for readers searching for a strong female lead. As the world marks Holocaust Remembrance Day during the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, this book becomes a much-needed read for the current times because of its message of survival, its recollection of history, and its focus on the importance of memory. As society transitions into new and often frightening forms due to lockdowns, stricter regulations, technological overreach, and changing, challenged narratives from various political regimes, this book offers insights to historical events that are all too fresh in the minds of those who survived those events and their aftermath.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Stilted Writing

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

The word stilted is defined as stiff, self-conscious, and/or unnatural. In a book, this concept is just as unwelcomed. For example…

It was a starry night. An owl flew low beneath the moon. Joe loved Jane so much that he thought his heart might burst. But nothing would stand in their way now. He swept her off her feet and carried her through the threshold of their lives together.

“Stop right there,” said the shadowy figure coming from behind the light post.

“No, not you!” Jane gasped.

“Have you forgotten about your husband?” the stranger barked.

“Sir, you must reconsider your approach,” Joe said.

The above passage forms a parade of clichés, passive verbs, hackneyed concepts, repetitions, invariable sentence structure, overly formal speech, and talking heads. Neither entertaining nor enlightening, these issues combine to stultify the reader. Let’s discuss a few of these problems.

Clichés, passive verbs, repetitions, overly formal speech, and even hackneyed concepts boil down to laziness on part of the writer. To complicate their existence, writers may become comfortable with these phrases and scenes during multiple readings to the point where a false sense of confidence in the prose arises. This is why cooling off periods—days or weeks if allowable between revisions—are vital to identifying problematic writing. Try to think of these issues as placeholders that will be replaced with stronger phrasing and construction. If the writer is not surprised or energized by his/her words, then no one else will be.

Talking head syndrome occurs when the characters provide information that either they should already know (i.e. “Hello, I’m Bob, your uncle.”) or barely relates to the conversation. This happens when the writer tries to relate narrative information through the character’s mouths. It is always obvious, and it saps momentum and authenticity from the work. In the example above, the entire dialogue should be replaced.

Invariable sentence structure, which is typically a repetition of subject-verb sentences without changes in presentation or structure, reveals the writer’s skill level or lack thereof. Fluctuations stimulate the reader’s mind. Changing sentence structure also is used in relation to the tone of the story. For example, short and quick sentences work for action scenes and humor, especially punch lines. Longer sentences can be found in romantic prose. Leading and trailing phrases form a variety of transitions. The list here is long and can be observed in any good literature and nonfiction narrative.

Many early writers are so eager to get their ideas on paper that they overlook the words themselves. On face value, that statement seems like a paradox, but it is only the normal course of a writer’s development. Skilled writers won’t accept stilted writing in their work, and during the revision process, they learn to identify their particular bad habits and eliminate them.

Here’s a cliché: All writing is rewriting. It also happens to be an axiom of the process.

Next in the The Book Killers series: Unfocused Openings

Previously in The Book Killers series: Inferior Word Choice