The men engaged well with the book/topic which, being about the Holocaust, was something they all knew about. Three had read it or part read it, one had seen the film and the new member had started it. We managed to have the discussion without revealing the ending!
I had marked four passages and we shared reading them. The first one was where the German boy, Bruno, is telling his Father how he doesn’t like living in Out-with (his childish term for Auschwitz). He asks who the people in the huts are that he can see from his bedroom. His Father says, ‘They are not people at all.’ We talked about how this made us feel and the men appreciated the skill of the author in portraying the characters’ attitudes leaving room for the reader to make his/her own judgement about them. They felt it illuminated the historical facts very well for a younger audience who might have less knowledge of the War and the Holocaust.
The second passage was a conversation between Bruno and Shmuel, the boy in the striped pyjamas, where Bruno is amazed that Shmuel speaks at least two languages. He tries to explain that Poland, where Shmuel comes from, isn’t as great as Germany and quotes his family saying Germany is superior. But even as he says it, the words ‘don’t seem right.’ We talked about how, as a child, he’d heard the words being said but didn’t hold the prejudices or cultural expectation of hating non-Aryans and how this instinct could be drummed out of us as we grew older by political rhetoric, media stories, perceived threats to our family etc. A parallel with some current attitudes to Moslems was drawn.
The third and fourth passages stimulated other thoughts, eg Bruno’s sister doesn’t have a way to describe themselves. She knows she and Bruno are not Jews and can only explain to him that ‘we’re the opposite.’ We talked about whether religion is an identifier in our culture and the difference for one reader who was brought up in N Ireland.
To end the session, I read a poem entitled, ‘First they came for the Jews’ by Martin Neimoller. The men were stunned into silence, a powerful moment.
The book, an account of a gay man’s life in Eire from his birth just after the Second World War to his final days in Dublin, shortly after the referendum on gay marriage, was chosen on account of February being LGBT Awareness month.
The narrative arc of the book took place from a period in the life of Ireland when it was as much ruled by the Catholic clergy as Saudi Arabia is ruled by fiercely reactionary imams today. One of the chapter titles “There are no homosexuals in Ireland”, sums up the attitude of a population who, encouraged by the priests, regarded gay men (they wouldn’t have even acknowledged the possibility of gay women) as deviants, criminals and perverts.
Most of the discussion centred round the changes in Irish attitudes but there was a real engagement with the text as well, with many questions being asked about this or that thing that happened in the story.
We briefly spoke about organised religion and how religious institutions can get in the way of real faith in God, and one of the group pointed out that church attendance in the Irish Republic was still very high, notwithstanding revised attitudes to sex and sexuality.
We had an interesting discussion about the presence of gay characters in soap operas these days. It was reported that in the last five years the prevalence of gay characters had grown exponentially. Some thought that gay characters had been introduced much earlier but it was pointed out that now such characters were often the central character rather than the more marginal roles that they had used to occupy.
Perhaps the most rewarding moment of the discussion came after we had formally finished and one of the prisoners talked to me privately about how amazed he was by the fortitude of Catherine and her determination to get a job and survive no matter what obstacles in her way. He was in jail for the second time and described an all-too-familiar pattern of release, inability to find a job, having to stay in a ex-cons’ hostel as a condition of his parole and therefore consorting with others less interested in going straight and succumbing to drug-dealing again. He cited the difficulties of Catherine’s life and her unshakeable determination as inspiring him not to give up when he came to be released again. “What she went through was ten times worse than anything I ever got put up against!”
We were all surprised, and impressed, by the way in which Dunmore puts the expected images and tropes of war to one side: tanks only appear once, a wall collapses and someone is killed.
‘I’m loving it. The writing is incredible.’
‘ I absolutely loved it. It’s a great setting, what I loved was the setting. I’m really into anything Russian. I love them for some reason. This story told me a lot. It rang true on how I imagine Russia, and Russian people to be, and made that part of history make sense.’
‘It happens and then people get on with their lives as best they can.’
The war of tanks, aircraft, and soldiers is happening to one side, just out of view. The real war is the battle against hunger and cold.
‘We see the effects of the war not the war itself,’ A observes. ‘That’s what it would be like in a war zone. It’s not Stalingrad where the wars took place in the streets, in the rubble. Here the city is cut off.’
K is interested in the father. ‘We never find out why his stories are no longer taken.’
‘He’s not got the right politics anymore.’
‘Perhaps they weren’t any good.’
‘And the cold and the hunger. So much about cold. I could feel it and yet she never mentions it.’
‘She shows you.’
‘And the older generation lay down their lives for the younger.’ I wasn’t sure about that,’ J says.