The Messenger by Yannick Haenel: A Case of Reflected Glory

on Monday, February 7, 2011
A couple of months ago, I was at a function for some Polish/Jewish reconciliation getup when a clearly frustrated Arnold Zable, grappling to find common ground with the misguided Polish apologist he was interviewing, mentioned a new book about the Polish resistance movement's greatest wartime hero, Jan Karski. The book, Zable suggested, was a daring attempt to refocus the lens on this forgotten giant of moral courage through a peculiar combination of non-fiction and fiction. It had already received several accolades in the French-speaking world and was about to be released here in Australia. Naturally, I was keen to get my hands on it, though I thought it would cause only a minor blip on the local publishing radar. How wrong I was. The Messenger, by Yannick Haenel, has been getting all sort of loving in the Australian press. Critics and other book-types alike have been falling over themselves, rushing to sing its praises. Indeed, you could easily be forgiven for thinking it should be held up there with Primo Levi's If This Is A Man and Elie Weisel's Night as one of the greats of Holocaust literature. Take a chill pill, folks. It isn't.

The Messenger is split into three sections. The first is a description and, to a lesser extent, examination of Karski's appearance in Claude Lanzmann's classic Holocaust epic, Shoah. It is an adequate, even moving, description but ultimately adds nothing to one's understanding of Karski himself. I've watched Shoah. All nine-odd hours of it. My grandfather sat me down as a kid and made me. I wasn't allowed to fast forward a single frame. The experience was truly harrowing, even more so for having shared it with a survivor. For those who haven't seen the movie, take my word for it. Shoah is unparalleled as an artistic response to the 20th Century's greatest crime. In it, Karski is an intersting, tragic figure, clearly haunted by his failure to succeed in convincing the allies to stop the killing machine. And herein lies one of the biggest problems with Haenel's book. Watching one minute of the interview with Karski will teach you more than reading the entire first part of The Messenger.

Part Two, rather oddly, is a summary of Karski's own book, Courier From Poland: The Story of A Secret State, in which he describes his terrifying experience in the Polish resistance movement - the beatings, the last-minute escapes, the secret sorties into the Warsaw Ghetto and a concentration camp so that he could bear witness and tell the Allies firsthand what he had seen. And, of course, his failure to achieve anything tangible. There is a degree of repetition, but it is through a new lens, Karski's own. Again, as a summary Part Two adequately fulfils its role, but the reader would be far better off tracking down the original.

Part Three is the most daring and, in my opinion, least successful. Haenel tries to enter Karski's mind and reflect, in first person, on his failed mission to Britain and America. Again, there is rehashing, the same images appear. "Karski" editorialises, commenting on the historical moments about which we have twice already been told. It is a passable attempt at ventriloquism, but having watched the man himself in Shoah, I just wasn't convinced that Haenel's Karski rang true. Perhaps it was my scepticism running on overdrive, but the narrative had a menial, workmanlike flow that never truly engaged me on a moral level.

I think those who have professed their love for this book might have been caught up in the very deserving glory of its subject. Jan Karski was an amazing man. His mission, though a failure, was noble and daring. His moral courage, his willingness to risk his own life to save a people to which he did not belong simply because it was the right thing to do will never receive enough praise. But just because he was great, it doesn't follow that any artistic response to, or interpretation of, him will be just as great. The Messenger is a decent book, but when all is said and done, Karski deserves much better.


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