Monday, October 13, 2008

Guest Blog - Emotional Arithmetic

Last spring while living in Toronto, I read two books by Matt Cohen: Emotional Arithmetic and Elizabeth and After. At that time the movie with Susan Sarandon had not yet been released on DVD. It came out this summer, but I was unable to find it at any local rental stores or online. Thanks to I discovered that for some reason when the DVD was released, the title was changed to Autumn Hearts: A New Beginning. The new title in many ways describes what happens in the movie so is somewhat appropriate; however, Cohen’s original title holds such depth and meaning.

At the onset of World War II Melanie lived in Paris with her parents. One day when she returned home from school they were gone. When she went to a neighbor’s apartment for help, the women handed her over to the authorities. A gold star was sewn on her jacket and she was shipped to Drancy on the outskirts of Paris. Drancy was a way station where people were held until they were shipped to some of the infamous concentration camps of WW II. At Drancy, Melanie met Christopher who was about her age and Jakob. Jakob became their protector and ultimately their savior. He bribed a guard to send him when the children’s names came up to be transported to a camp.

Shortly after Melanie arrived at Drancy, Jakob gave her a notebook and instructed her to keep track of the number of people who came and went from Drancy. For example, she might have noted that 156 men and 144 women and 34 children arrived on a certain day. She kept track of their names and who they were. Jakob told Melanie that she must never forget and that she must be a witness some day of what happened at Drancy.

Eventually when the Allies took Paris, Melanie and Christopher were released from prison. Melanie was sent back to Canada where she grew into a woman who championed every individual who was persecuted around the globe. She became obsessed with writing on behave of anyone who came to her attention. She had filing cabinets full of information on people who were political prisoners. Campaigning for the release of individuals became her life’s mission. The people who paid the price for her devotion were her husband David and her son Ben.

All of this is the backdrop for the story of the reunion of Christopher and Jakob with Melanie. Christopher has become an entomologist while Jakob was rescued from concentration camp by the Russians who continued to keep him in prison or mental hospitals.

I was surprised at how many of the details of the book, I had forgotten since I read it just over four months ago. The movie does not hold a lot of the smaller details of the book but it still conveys the feeling of the book. I noticed that the viewers of the movie did not rate it very highly on, but having read the book before hand, I was very appreciative of how well the movie was made. It is set in the eastern townships of Quebec in the autumn. Visually the movie is beautiful. And with just a few flash back scenes the shared experience of Drancy is made clear. The interwoven relationships of the individuals in the story are well defined. Overall I would recommend reading the book or seeing the film. Because of the subject matter it is not a light and entertaining book. Instead it is thought provoking. Both Cohen and director Paolo Barzman evoke feelings of warmth and concern for Melanie who has carried the burden all of her life recording the arithmetic of victims of persecution.


Blogger said...

Is the story fictional?

notaconnoisseur said...

Yes, it is. But I have read a lot about the survivors need to remember, so it is probably well grounded in truth. Matt Cohen was Jewish as far as I know.