Asunder by Chloe Aridjis: More interested in being than becoming

Asunder communicates its ideas, and their supporting cultural references, subtly and efficiently.

The second novel by London-based author Chloe Aridjis, Asunder appears on its surface to be about quiet contemplation, and how far it is possible to abstract oneself from the dramas and traumas of social interaction. Claiming not to suffer from listlessness or boredom, protagonist Marie has sought out a job (but not a career) as a museum guard at the National Gallery, working there as "I have always been more interested in being than becoming", killing time by trying to guess how long remains before closing without looking at her watch, or ruminating upon the gradual process of paint cracking.

After nine uneventful years, Marie becomes restless. The sad, quiet death of a 68-year-old colleague, felled by a heart attack at work, jolts her into realising that life is slowly slipping away from her. Her friendship with poet Daniel, fired from the Gallery for noisily pacing around, encourages her to think about his unrequited loves and her own brief liaisons "that didn’t threaten the peace", but when he offers to take her to Paris, she struggles with the potential short-term change to her routine, deliberating for days before taking the trip which irrevocably alters her carefully contained world.

"Painters create order from disorder, but the moment that order has been created, the slow march towards disorder begins again", reflects Marie, and her greatest fear, it seems, is of encounters that will change her situation in any way. Like her, Daniel keeps people at a distance, writing to other poets across the world, preferring not to meet them as this always leads to the correspondence shrivelling; Marie wrote to a prisoner who later escaped from Belmarsh, the realisation that he had her address leading her to panic that he would enter her life in a ruinous fashion (as in Robert Hamer’s It Always Rains on Sunday, about a Bethnal Green housewife whose life is torn apart by this very occurrence). This does not happen, and Marie wonders what became of her penfriend: finally, in Paris, she reaches the uncharacteristic yet inevitable point where she spontaneously breaks out of herself and struggles to connect with an inscrutable stranger.

At its core, Asunder is about time: how slowly it passes, the futility of trying to fight its effects, and generational changes in people and ideas. Besides her memories of vanished shops and her knowledge of different approaches to the restoration of art, Marie often thinks about the history of violence against the suffragettes, as well as her great-grandfather Ted, and the most significant moment of his life as a National Gallery guard, in 1914, when he slipped in trying to catch Mary Richardson, granting her vital seconds to slash Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus in protest against Emmeline Pankhurst’s imprisonment. As a child, Marie heard this story countless times, aware that she was supposed to see Richardson as a criminal but sympathising with her cause, touchingly confessing that "I loved [Ted] just a tiny bit more for not reaching her in time".

Asunder communicates its ideas, and their supporting cultural references, subtly and efficiently. Aridjis is particularly strong on the nature of travel, in London and in general. Her prose is full of deft imagery – such as the way the women "comb the city from [their] hair" on changing into their Gallery uniform – and the moment where Marie becomes aware that she has become "captive to that irrational behaviour in foreign cities when you feel everyone is watching when in reality not a soul has noticed your existence" is especially touching.

The influence of nouveau roman authors such as Marguerite Duras and Nathalie Sarraute, and British counterparts Ann Quin and Christine-Brooke-Rose can be felt in the rarefied focus on the narrator’s interior world, her corresponding observations of the mundane realities of so much human behaviour, and the way in which her narrative slowly builds towards a climax that changes her life without feeling life-changing. As a reminder that life will pass you by if you choose to experience it passively, however, Asunder is far more powerful than it immediately seems.

Protagonist Marie takes a job as a museum guard at the National Gallery. Photograph: Getty Images.

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster