There is a heartbreaking true story hidden somewhere in Heather Morris’ The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Even if its authenticity has been questioned by historians after its publication, the book never claimed to be a non-fiction historical account. It is the result of a conversation, the story an old widowed man was willing to share with an author he hardly knew. Some inaccurate numbers and dates can’t undermine the power of such an exchange.
But you know what can ? Really terrible writing.
What a shame. What a complete, utter, inexcusable waste of an absolutely incredible story. Learning that Tattooist of Auschwitz started out as a screenplay makes a lot more sense — but even then, it still is a pretty awful script. In the novel’s afterword, Morris says she spent weeks talking with Lale in order to get the story right. It isn’t outlandish to think she should have gotten at least an idea of his personality. Yet book Lale, even as a main character, is devoid of any human characteristics. Gita and secondary characters are even worse.
Maybe this lack of humanity to latch our affection onto is intentional. Maybe it is a way to replicate the coldness of the SS camps. But it is way more likely to be a case of bad characterization. What even prompts Lale and Gita to fall in love ? We get the idea that Gita is beautiful and that Lale is overall a nice guy, but how is that enough to justify calling this a life-changing love story ? How can they go from not knowing each other to promising to marry each other in the span of a few pages, without even having a proper conversation ? Some would call it romantic — I’m more tempted to call it laziness.
If anything, The Tattooist of Auschwitz feels like a summary of a way better novel. Lale’s actions are rushed, the prose non-existent. It just is a collection of short sentences describing actions one after the other. There’s no rhythm, no life. The screenwriting background is clear in the novel’s abundance of dialogue, which could have made it better if it wasn’t just as terrible as the rest. It could have something to do with trying to translate things that are untranslatable, but all of Gita and Lale’s exchanges feel phony.
There’s no denying the horrifying power of Lale Sokolov’s life. The fact that he was able to tell it in its entirety to anyone is amazing enough. He is the result of a shameful time for humanity, some of the worst it ever produced. Because of that, he deserves better. Perhaps the story would have worked better as an historical document — but then again, the numerous inaccuracies make it impossible to consider it anything but fiction. In the end, Morris wrote what no book wishes to be: an absolutely amazing story and an absolutely dreadful novel.