Aaron’s Leap by Magdaléna Platzová
Craig Cravens, tr. New York. Bellevue Literary Press. 2014. ISBN 9781934137703
Czech author Magdaléna Platzová has written poems, two collections of short stories, three well-received plays, a book for children, and three novels. Aaron’s Leap is her first novel to be translated into English. Platzová grew up in Prague and has an MA in philosophy from Charles University, having studied also in England and Washington, DC.
The novel traces the life of Berta Altmann, born at the turn of the twentieth century in Vienna, inspired by the real-life story of the artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. Berta dreams of painting and design; art is central in her life. The book takes us on a journey through the turbulent times of wars, revolutions, and new directions in art like expressionism and abstractionism. Starting with World War I in 1914, we follow Berta through Central Europe from Austria to Weimar, where she attends the Bauhaus school to study textiles and abstract art and meets artists like Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. The story meanders to Berlin, back to Vienna, and then to Prague, where Berta tries to escape from the rising Nazi danger and marries a Czech artist named Milan Drůza. She finds her balance and enters the most productive period of her life, cut short by the Nazi annexation of Czechoslovakia and deportation of Milan and Berta first to the Terezín ghetto and then to Auschwitz.
The story is told through the diaries of Berta and through her friend, Czech artist Kristýna Hládková. We jump between the past and the time after the Velvet Revolution, when a team from Israel comes to Prague to make a film about Berta the artist and the teacher. The cameraman, Aaron, is helped by Kristýna’s granddaughter, Milena; together they discover some of the secrets of the past.
The novel is beautifully written, with masterful creation of atmosphere and sculpting of the main characters. The translation by Craig Cravens is excellent and true to Platzová’s artful prose.