Fic­tion

Anna and the Swal­low Man

  • Review
By – August 3, 2015

When her father is tak­en in the purge of intel­lec­tu­als from Krakow in 1939, Anna is 7 years old and alone in a city with lit­tle kind­ness left to spare. She meets a mys­te­ri­ous man with more promise than those her fam­i­ly once called friends, and togeth­er they set off with urgency to go away rather than toward anything.

Wind­ing through the back forests of Poland with Anna and her Swal­low Man — the only name he will give her — we catch glimpses into the minds of an aca­d­e­m­ic and a high­ly intel­lec­tu­al child as they attempt to sur­vive the impos­si­ble cir­cum­stances of an esca­lat­ing World War together.

What does Anna know about the world around her? Of the fate of her loved ones and com­pan­ions? What does she under­stand, and how far will she sus­pend her imag­i­na­tion to still believe in good­ness? How far can she walk before what feels inevitable?

Anna and the Swal­low Man is a book billed for ages twelve and up, but as Anna’s father once said, Men who try to under­stand the world with­out the help of chil­dren are like men who try to bake bread with­out the help of yeast.” Read­ers who have delved deeply into Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture and his­to­ry will still have what to dis­cov­er in Anna’s story.

Part fairy­tale, part mag­i­cal real­ism, and part psy­choso­cial explo­ration of what it may mean to grow up sur­round­ed by hor­ror, this short nov­el can­not be con­tained with­in its pages. An exquis­ite­ly haunt­ing nar­ra­tive writ­ten in prose that dances, Gavriel Savit’s debut will take your breath away.

Inter­view with Gavriel Savit

with Shi­ra Schindel

Jew­ish Book Coun­cil sat down with Gavriel Sav­it to dis­cuss his debut nov­el, Anna and the Swal­low Man, the vel­vety mind of Borges, Holo­caust fatigue, and the beau­ty of not know­ing. Much like the expe­ri­ence of read­ing his com­pact and inspir­ing book, in talk­ing with the author we learned a lot in a short amount of time.

Shi­ra Schin­del: I per­son­al­ly loved Anna and the Swal­low Man, and can’t wait to pass it on to friends and fam­i­ly. Does it sur­prise you that most of those with whom I intend to share it are not children?

GS: It’s inter­est­ing how when you write a sto­ry that’s cen­tered around a young woman, it gets received as being on the more juve­nile side, and that’s an unfor­tu­nate real­i­ty of the way we think of women’s nar­ra­tives in the world right now. But, it also sort of opened the book up a lit­tle bit. I didn’t imme­di­ate­ly think of it as a child’s nar­ra­tive, but I do think it’s fun­da­men­tal­ly a sto­ry about a mag­i­cal time and mind­set in child­hood, the imme­di­a­cy of which a lot of us for­get as we get older.

I also think we are very for­tu­nate right now that what has tra­di­tion­al­ly been con­sid­ered gener­ic fic­tion — spec­u­la­tive, detec­tive, children’s — is falling by the way­side. Young adult nar­ra­tives are en vogue. There’s no shame in read­ing a book we enjoy.

SS: What about Holo­caust nar­ra­tives? There are many out there who say we’ve pub­lished enough books on the sub­ject matter.

GS: I admit I also have a degree of Holo­caust fatigue. There is so much out there that seems to tread the same ground over and over again. A lot of it, for me, devolves into mis­ery porn and I don’t want that.

There is a book I read by Yan Mar­tel, Beat­rice and Vir­gil, that deals with the dif­fi­cul­ty of intro­duc­ing art and sto­ry into the space of World War II and Holo­caust nar­ra­tives. There is so much art cre­at­ed about the Holo­caust, and a lot of it seems to be very con­cerned with por­tray­ing hor­ror. With is obvi­ous­ly real and no one would ever want to min­i­mize the hor­ror of that time and place.

It seems to me, how­ev­er, that human beings live full lives even in the most atro­cious of sit­u­a­tions, and it’s some­what regret­table that it’s not always pos­si­ble to see the nuance in human expe­ri­ence with­in these ter­ri­ble sit­u­a­tions. That, I feel, is one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing things: How do you grow up sur­round­ed by this hor­ri­ble danger?

But maybe the answer is sim­ply: What is the alternative?

Shi­ra Schin­del is the Direc­tor of Busi­ness Devel­op­ment & Author Engage­ment at Litographs and for­mer­ly the head of Con­tent and Acqui­si­tions at Qlovi, an edu­ca­tion tech­nol­o­gy start­up accel­er­at­ing lit­er­a­cy in K-12 class­rooms. Before that she worked in the lit­er­ary depart­ment at ICM Part­ners, and stud­ied Cre­ative Writ­ing at Colum­bia University.

Discussion Questions