Classic review: Schindler's List

A ''nonfiction novel'' based on the life of German industrialist Oscar Schindler.

Schindler's List By Thomas Keneally Simon and Schuster 398 pp., $15

[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on Nov. 10, 1982.] The prolific and versatile Australian novelist continues to prove himself one of the least predictable, most interesting of contemporary writers. A series of fictional explorations of his troubled homeland culminated in that strident vision of racial oppression and its consequences ''The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith'' (1972). Since then, Keneally has ranged amazingly far afield, exploring the intricacies of human adversity undergone in such disparate theaters of operation as France during World War I (''Gossip From the Forest,'' 1976), the American South torn by our own Civil War (''Confederates,'' 1980), and the womb as observed by a sensitive fetus reluctantly about to enter the world (''Passenger,'' 1979).

It seems that Keneally's great subject is the tension between dramatic experiences or events and the ''ordinary'' people fortunate or unfortunate enough to live through them. That pattern shows itself again in Schindler's List, a ''nonfiction novel'' based on the life of Oscar Schindler, a German industrialist who, while closely allied with the Nazi high command throughout World War II years, operated factories in Poland and Czechoslovakia.

For these factories he reclaimed ''industrial prisoners,'' eventually releasing them to safety. Over 1,300 Jews were rescued from the death camps due to the efforts of this highly unlikely ''saviour'' - who, after his passing in 1974, was buried in Jerusalem and was designated a ''righteous person'' by the state of Israel.

Keneally's narrative weaves testimony from survivors who remember Schindler together with meticulous accounts of the deceptions he practiced on the SS (Nazi special police) officials whom he wined and dined. ''His . . . day was spent speaking to bureaucrats, his evenings in buttering them up,'' Keneally observes. A large part of the book comprises a manual showing how the Nazi system worked, and how Schindler manipulated and circumvented it. He was frequently arrested on suspicion of treasonable activity, but always managed to talk his way to freedom. He was capable of ingenious strategems, such as the argument that young children were correctly included on his ''list'' of those to be saved as ''skilled munitions workers.'' ''They polish the forty-five millimeter shells,. . . . They were selected for their long fingers, which can reach the interior of the shell . . . ,'' Schindler insisted.

In addition to this nearly documentary quality, the story's realistic feel is further qualified by Keneally's direct addresses to the reader, confiding to us his difficulties in rendering Schindler's personality credibly as fictionalized narrative. The unfortunate effect of this device is to heighten our confusion about the man Oscar Schindler - at times the playboy-dilettante (continuously involved in adulterous love affairs), at others the venerated object of ''Schindler's Jews'' (''He was our father, he was our mother, he was our only faith. He never let us down,'' is how one described him). This tension ought to bring the character to complex, arresting life; it doesn't, because the novel's narrative voice distances us from him so: Schindler never becomes more than a formally conceived and presented enigma.

It is necessary, then, to conclude that ''Schindler's List'' is not one of Thomas Keneally's better books. Nevertheless, as an act of homage to a man we mustn't be allowed to forget, the book does its job movingly and well.

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