Booker Prize Winner 1982
Achieving universal recognition through Steven Spielberg’s multi-Academy Award winning film, Schindler’s Ark tells the true story of Oskar Schindler, the unlikely saviour of over 1,300 Jews during one of history’s darkest periods.
Womaniser, heavy drinker, Nazi industrialist and war profiteer, Oskar Schindler was not, on the surface, a typical hero. In late 1939, after the Nazi invasion of Poland, he took over a failing enamelware factory in Cracow. As the treatment of the Jewish population in the city deteriorated, the factory began to gain the reputation of being a safe haven. Secretly appalled by the actions of his countrymen, Schindler sustained his workers with black-market food, and protected them from deportation to the death camps through a programme of bribery and deals with party officials. As momentum towards the Final Solution grew, so too did the risks Schindler took to secure the safety of his charges.
Keneally’s account is based on the testimony of those known as Schindlerjuden (Schindler’s Jews), the fortunate few who survived the Holocaust thanks to the ingenuity of their enigmatic employer. Keneally offers us no glib explanations as to why Schindler chose to act as he did, but as the story progresses, Schindler’s behaviour somehow makes perfect sense.
With great skill and deftness of touch, Keneally weaves specific, eyewitness detail and vivid characterisation into his novel. His focus on individuals and their own stories makes the narrative all the more compelling, giving history a human face. Avoiding sensationalism and sentimentality, Keneally allows the facts to speak for themselves – a restraint also reflected in Tim Laing’s poignant illustrations. This is a story that needs no embellishment to both horrify and uplift.
The year after Rushdie’s triumph the winner was Schindler’s Ark by Australian novelist Thomas Keneally, and there was much argument about whether this account of Oskar Schindler’s successful schemes to save Polish Jews from the gas chambers was fiction or non-fiction. ‘I have attempted to avoid all fiction,’ says the author, an unusual declaration for a novelist. What he means is not that there is no dramatisation or vividly imagined description. Rather, it is an assurance that not a single episode or character is invented. The novelist has brought a story to life with conventional novelistic skills, but it entirely follows the testimonies that he has had first-hand from survivors. Keneally interviewed some fifty Jews who had been saved by the roguish Schindler, a racketeer and smalltime industrialist who, after the German invasion of Poland, recruited Jewish workers for his Cracow factory and ensured, largely through bribes, that they were protected from the Nazis. History has required Thomas Keneally not to presume that he can always understand his protagonist. Those who knew him, after all, ‘blink and shake their heads and begin the almost mathematical business of finding the sum of his motives’. This is a novel that makes room for uncertainty, doing justice to the mystery of human motivation. Schindler is a drinker, a womaniser and, at first, a profiteer. He is not ‘without sin’, as the narrator drily observes. As Europe turns to darkness, he is a man who relishes ‘the general succulence of life’, and this appetite for life is what sets him against the murderers amongst whom he finds himself. The largesse of the genial opportunist we meet in the early chapters of the book eventually becomes the fearless resourcefulness of the man dedicated to saving Jews from extermination. The character is the creation of a skilful novelist, but it is also a duty paid to the historical truth.
As taken from, The Booker Effect, by John Mullan.