In 1940, Greek geologist Athos was digging in a war-stricken Polish city when a small boy emerged from the mud; no one realized that he was alive until he started to cry. Jakob was only seven years old and his entire family had been taken and probably killed by the Nazis. Athos decides to risk his own life by taking the boy home to Greece, where they settle, hide, starve, but begin to know each other and develop a relationship and education. We follow Jakob into adulthood, watching him write poetry that reflects their haunted past as well as their uncertain future.
This book may have been slightly too literary for me. I loved the idea of the story but I’m never all that fond of books told in abstracts. Perhaps I read it too soon after The English Patient, which I still haven’t found the words to review; both books are similar in their slow exploration of the effects of war on people’s psyche and in their meandering focus on people rather than plot. I’m not sure I’m always in a mood for such a read. A week later, however, I find myself pondering this book, wondering about Jakob.
Jakob’s transition from lost and lonely boy to educated, confident, loving man is quite a fascinating one. We first witness Jakob’s life, then the life of another man who is significantly influenced by him and by the war. There are multiple threads running through the novel; perhaps the most important, I felt, were the bonds of love. Jakob loves Athos; he loves his wives; he loves his parents and perhaps most especially, he loves his lost sister Bella, who he manages to carry in his heart throughout his life.
I was a bit perplexed by the addition of the second character in the final 100 pages of the book. I wasn’t as interested in him as I was in Jakob. I can see the parallels between them and I understand the effect of showing the significance Jakob had after his death, but I felt there were unanswered questions and I wanted the answers. This book would be better read with other people in order to think and discuss more closely its literary significance. I’m sure there is a great deal here that I am not picking up on my own. I’m planning to read it again and see what I can find the next time.