Monday, April 26, 2010

A Hatred for Tulips, by Richard Lourie

Anne Frank appears as an icon in many novels that take place in the time of the Holocaust, exemplifying the theme of hope surviving amidst evil. When I made a mental survey of the novels I've read that use Anne Frank as a jumping off point, riffing on the powerful themes of good and evil, "A Hatred for Tulips" immediately came to mind. This is a disquieting book, one that shakes up the way we tend to pigeonhole the world around us and like it to line up in neat rows. It's only natural to want to spot the good guys, to be able to tell them apart from the bad guys. If only the gray of our world could be unmixed, and separated back into the pure, contrasting colors of black and white, our lives would be much simpler.

In "A Hatred for Tulips," Lourie mixes it up and takes us out of our comfort zones. Did Joop, ostensibly the bad guy, really turn in Anne Frank's family, as he claims he did? Or is his confession a ruse, used to either elicit sympathy from his brother or to hurt him? Can someone who does the unthinkable, an unsympathetic character, evoke sympathy? Can the bad guy's action be explained and change our perception of him? And can the good guy be bad?

In a stark retelling of his childhood, a sad-sack Joop reunites with his brother and immediately spills the secret that he was the informer who turned in the Frank family. The back story, which compellingly informs the ambiguous dialogue that is spoken at this reunion, takes up most of the book. As a child, before the war, Joop gets short shrift in the family, and suffers. After the war, Joop gets the short straw again. He is left in Amsterdam with his alcoholic and abusive father, while his brother Willem leaves for America with their mother. At first, the contrast between the two brothers is black and white. Joop got the "bad" parent, led a lonely, single life and worked in a factory, while Willem left for the promised land of America with the "good" parent, married and had children, and had every advantage. But then the lines blur.

In speaking to his brother for the first time in sixty years, Joop tells of a lifetime of events that don't excuse his terrible deed, but perhaps explain it. He is the quintessential victim, and as the world around him spins out of control he gets none of his needs met and is constantly blamed for things completely out of his control. By confessing to this terrible crime, though, Joop becomes a victim himself. If we believe him, that he indeed was the informer, we bestow victim status on him; he claims that through his own guilt, he has suffered more than Anne herself. One might (naturally) imagine the informant of the Frank family as a villain, but in Joop's own eyes, it is not the Franks, but he who is the victim. This one mistake, driven by bile and jealousy, leads Joop to carry with him a guilt that surrounds him like a cloud, closing out the life he might have had.

What I really liked about "A Hatred for Tulips" is that in the end, it didn't wrap things up in neat packages. Like so much of real life, life outside the pages of a novel, the truth of a situation is often never discovered. Or there turn out to be many facets of the truth. Just as in life, "A Hatred for Tulips" is a study in shades of gray.

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