Amongst a spate of recent novels set in Auschwitz, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is based on a real man, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who was forced to work in that role during his imprisonment in Auschwitz. In 2003 Heather Morris met Lale and they became friends over the years it took for him to tell her his story. Morris is a screenwriter rather than a novelist (this is her debut) and so first wrote this story as a screenplay before adapting it into this novel. Unfortunately, this becomes more evident as the novel goes on.
What I admired in this book is the way Morris presents all the horror without glorifying it. The things Lale had to see are at times incomprehensible, but there is no gratuitous presentation. Of course, knowing that Lale will survive to tell his story does stop you from fearing for his life, but that doesn’t minimise the danger he often finds himself in. Lale’s sense of determination is also impressive. He enlists fellow inmates to smuggle out jewels and money that are confiscated from the new arrivals, using them to buy extra food and supplies from the local villagers who work in the camp. He often uses the influence afforded by his role to help others, but there is the constant risk of being discovered.
The disappointment for me is in the way the book is written. It is almost as if Morris took her screenplay and wrote out each scene, replacing much of the dialogue with prose. They are short scenes with barely any internal reflection. At times it’s like reading non-fiction, just facts and events written down. It is such a shame as Lale and Gita’s love story could have been elevated but I wasn’t drawn into it the way I would have hoped. Even when Josef Mengele shows up, Morris tells us how terrifying he is rather than letting the reader work it out. This is basically a novel length example of telling rather than showing.
This novel is worthwhile reading if you have an interest in Lale and his story. It is a comprehensive retelling of a fascinating story, but as a novel it leaves me cold.