Noah’s Child

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Noah's Child Eric-Emanuel Schmitt, book reviewOn Sundays Joseph puts on his best – but very ragged – clothes and performs in the weekly ‘beauty parade’, strutting across the stage at the Villa Jaune and hoping that one of the adults in the audience will recognise him and claim him as their son. Other boys are hoping for new parents to adopt them, but that can only happen when it’s confirmed that they really are orphans and not just children who’ve temporarily ‘misplaced’ their parents. Each week he walks across the stage, pauses and then turns back and returns to the school to return to his waiting game. One day he’s sure his parents will be there but until then he marches across the stage and back again. Week after week in his shoes, full of holes and held together by dirt and determination.

Things were not always so. Before the Nazis came to Belgium and started rounding up the Jews and sending them to the concentration camps, Joseph lived happily with his mother and father, loving and being loved in return. As the dangers increased, his parents prioritised his safety and sent him away, first to stay with their friends – the Comte and Comtesse de Sully –who passed him off as their nephew from Holland. When it became clear that their story probably wouldn’t stand up to too close an inspection, they sent him to a local school where the Catholic priest, Father Pons, was sheltering young Jewish boys, hiding them in plain sight amongst local Christian boys.

With the help of a wily pharmacist who makes forged papers, seven year old Jewish boy Joseph Bernstein became a six year old Catholic called Joseph Bertin. Father Pons taught him to cross himself and genuflect as he entered the local church to sing hymns and pass himself off as just another Catholic. He rather liked his new adopted religion but Father Pons was determined not to turn his young charges into good Catholics. Like Noah collecting the animals before the flood, Pons collects the artefacts and practices of the Jewish religion, determined to protect them from the Nazi ‘flood’ that threatens to wipe out this ancient religion.

Noah’s Child is quite a surprisingly gentle story of survival…”

Stories of brutality and persecution of Jews in the Second World War are nothing new and at times it does seem like Joseph’s story is relatively gentle. Realistically, during any major horror there must have been people who didn’t do too badly. Life at the school is far from horrifying. Yes, of course the boys are always at risk of an unexpected inspection by the Germans, terrified that the evidence of their circumcision will send them to the camps and there’s never really enough food to go around. But it’s not all bad. Joseph has a friend called Rudy, one of the older and much bigger boys, who becomes a sort of substitute big brother. Father Pons teaches the Jewish boys about Judaism, determined to keep alive a religion that isn’t his own, living in the hope that the boys he’s protecting will become ambassadors for the religion that has led to their persecution. His family are replaced by his surrogate brother and the priestly ‘father’.

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt is one of Belgium’s best-known contemporary writers and his website tells us he had the distinction of being number nine on the French best sellers list in 2010. That would be really impressive if I’d recognised more than one other writer in the top ten. He writes plays, novels and short stories and I’d put Noah’s Child somewhere between a short novel and a long short story. I believe the word is normally ‘novella’ though I’ve always found that a strange term.

Noah’s Child is apparently the fourth in a series of stories about childhood and religion which he calls the ‘Cycle de l’Invisible’. It may well be that if you’ve read the other three that there’s additional significance which was lost on me.

At just 137 small pages with quite large font, this isn’t a book that will take you long to get through. I got the impression that every word had been carefully chosen and every sentence constructed rather than thrown together and I can imagine that his translator, Adriana Hunter, must have had to translate very carefully. I read my copy in the bath in less time than it takes for your skin to go all wrinkly from the hot water so this isn’t a book that’s going to take too much of your life but the ideas it raises – the symbolism of the ‘Ark’ as a protective receptacle for ‘at risk’ religions or societies for example – will stay with you longer than the read itself. Did I enjoy Noah’s Child? I’m not sure that ‘enjoy’ is the right word to apply to any book about the holocaust, but I was intrigued by it and rather moved by the idea that not every book on the topic has to be soaked in death and destruction. Noah’s Child is quite a surprisingly gentle story of survival and of building new relationships when the traditional ones of family are torn apart. Personally I like a story with a bit more meat on its bones and more time to develop plot and characters but for a short book, this is well worth tracking down.

Noah’s Child by Eric-Emanuel Schmitt
Published by Atlantic Books, February 2012
With thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy.

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Noah's Child
by Eric-Emanuel Schmitt

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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