In September 1943, Italy surrenders to the Allies. The city of Rome, however, remains under full control of the Nazis, and by mid-October a thorough round-up of Roman Jews is imminent. The neutral city-state of the Vatican offers safe harbor: The Germans have agreed not to violate any Vatican properties, or the people within.
Hans von Trotha’s novel Pollak’s Arm is framed as a report delivered orally by K., a jittery Berlin schoolteacher stranded in Rome and given refuge in the Vatican. His interlocutor is Monsignor F., “a retired prelate and ecclesiastical diplomat.” The Monsignor had requested K. to visit Ludwig Pollak, an archaeologist, antiquities scholar, collector, and art dealer, and to escort him and his family—Jews—to the safety of the Vatican.
K.’s account of his visit to Pollak’s home doesn’t concern the logistics of flight, though he repeatedly touches on his terror of the approaching dusk, when the Nazi-imposed curfew will put himself under threat of arrest and end any chance of escape for Pollak and his family. K.’s urgent mission is postponed again and again as the old man spins memory after memory, prompted by publications and objects in his antiquities collection, selected seemingly at random. “He was using memories of the past to defer the present,” K. tells the Monsignor. “I was swept up in it.”
So are we, readers, swept up in the memories of an impassioned and fascinatingly erudite art lover. But what the Monsignor, older, wiser, calmer—and not under the terrifying threat of a Gestapo abduction—understands all along is that Pollak’s memoir, as spoken to K., is not an escape. Nor is Pollak in denial, though he does toy with the idea that the Nazis might spare him, an elderly scholar who states, “Goethe is culture.” Even as thread after flight-delaying thread unwinds in the labyrinthine account, it becomes clear that Pollak is acutely aware of the present dangers, his role in them, and how his life’s trajectory has placed him in this dangerous present.
Pollak’s account of his own life is palimpsestic, with the question of personal identity raised at every layer rubbed off and every layer revealed in the telling. Among the layers of the palimpsest is an ancient sculpture.
Here we turn slightly away from fiction to relate the history on which the novel is founded. The historical Ludwig Pollak, born in 1868, was renowned for his exquisite art collections, his catalogs of other important collections, his discernment as an art dealer and scholar, and for several discoveries of ancient sculptures and vessels. His famous arm was not attached to his own body. It is a sculpted arm that Pollak came across in a Roman stoneyard in 1906, and which he identified as the missing arm of Laocoön, from the Laocoön Group, a stupendous sculpture now in the collection of the Vatican Museums. The sculpture, dated from 40 to 30 BCE, depicts Laocoön and his sons in the throes of a giant serpent.
According to some ancient stories, Laocoön was a Trojan priest who tried to expose the Trojan horse as a military deception of the Greeks. Athena, who was rooting for the Greeks, retaliated by sending serpents to kill him and his two sons. Other accounts, though, have Laocoön as a blasphemer and breaker of religious vows, justly punished by the god Poseidon. As for the sons? Whatever the sin of Laocoön, their only sin was to have him as father.
Until 1506, when the Laocoön Group was unearthed in an Italian vineyard, the sculpture’s existence was known only from written accounts. Its physical discovery was of such a magnitude that the pope sent Michelangelo to view it and to authenticate its identity. Unsurprisingly, several elements of the sculpture were missing, including Laocoön’s right arm.
Three and a half centuries later, artist Hubert Robert (inaccurately) portrayed the event in his 1773 painting The Finding of the Laocoön, now in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Von Trotha’s Pollak—that is, the fictional one—has a framed reproduction of Robert’s painting, and refers to it throughout his afternoon with K.
The scene depicted in Robert’s painting takes place not in a vineyard, but in a huge, musty looking, vaulted classical Roman building that dwarfs the people scattered in its interior. The sculpture in the painting looks to measure about ten feet to the top of Laocoön’s head, rather than its true height of about seven feet. In Robert’s painting, the missing right arm is present and accounted for. It reaches upward.
The presence of the phantom arm wasn’t really Robert’s mistake. In 1532, the Vatican had commissioned a reconstruction of the missing arm, extended upward as Robert’s painting shows. Hubert Robert would have viewed this version. The arm Ludwig Pollak found nearly four centuries after the statue was rediscovered bends back over the right shoulder, apparently to seize the serpent.
How did Pollak recognize the arm, nearly four centuries after the statue was found? Obvious traits such as size, workmanship, and type of stone might have made it stand out, even in a stoneyard no doubt littered with many fragments. Besides, Michelangelo himself stated his belief that the original right arm was bent back over the shoulder.
Look at Laocoön’s right arm as it is presented today; there’s a clear image at good old Wikipedia, with Pollak’s arm, as joined to Laocoön in the 1980s. Pretend you are seeing only that arm, an anonymous fragment amidst heaps of other anonymous fragments. What do you think of that lump of stone above the right arm’s biceps? What could it be?
As von Trotha tells it, Ludwig Pollak spotted the “protuberance above the biceps” and “knew at once that it was part of the deadly serpent gliding across the smooth arm.” In Pollak’s Arm, Pollak sees more than dismembered limbs in the two different versions of Laocoön’s right arm. The 1532 reconstructed arm is “extended in exultation,” imbuing Laocoön with a tragic heroism; this is the arm of a man unjustly punished by the gods for trying to save his country. The bent arm, Pollak believes, strips away that illusion. He says, “This hero is no hero.” Pollak’s Laocoön just wants to stop the pain.
Laocoön: the myth, the statue, the painting of the statue’s discovery, the reconstructed arm, “Pollak’s arm”: different versions and interpretations of the horror of a man and his two sons executed by deities wielding giant sea serpents. An artwork of solid marble becomes in itself a palimpsest.
Another layer of Pollak’s memoir takes the form of a fragment of parchment. The scrap is from a “retired” Torah that, with other sacred texts, was “sprinkled with lime and buried with the utmost solemnity in the Jewish cemetery” in his beloved hometown of Prague. The shape of the fragment, although randomly created by age and destruction, “immediately suggested” to Pollak the Star of David, a sacred symbol appropriated by the Nazis as a badge Jews were forced to wear. “I couldn’t help myself,” Pollack admits. “I simply had to take one of the fragments.” The acquisition echoes Pollak’s vocation as a salvager of antiquities, themselves often sacred relics. Yet his possession of it also carries a disturbing whiff of blasphemy.
A little research can reveal the ultimate fate of Pollak and his family. (I chose not to find out until I’d read the book through; I opted to experience K.’s tension.) For specific memories, von Trotha drew from a wealth of sources, including Ludwig Pollak’s diaries, letters, and published works.
The silence that von Trotha doesn’t fill asks the novel’s most perplexing and perhaps most significant question: Why is it that Pollak alone decides, for his wife and two grown children, whether to stay home and risk getting seized by the Gestapo or to take refuge in the Vatican? Despite K.’s repeated requests, Pollak doesn’t even rouse the family, who are sleeping in other rooms. K. reports, “’Their sleeping makes me happy,’ he said. ‘We have so few reasons to be awake, you see.’”
Several times in the course of the afternoon Pollak indicates that he certainly understands the necessity of choosing whether to stay or flee. His consideration weighs heroic substitution and sacrifice—if he is spared, another Jew may have to take his place—along with a stubborn submission to “the fate assigned to us.”
The English edition renders the German das Schicksal interchangeably as “fate” or “destiny.” However, das Schicksal is more equivalent to “fate,” with die Bestimmung more equivalent to “destiny.” English and German make more or less the same distinction between the two. Fate deals in immutable outcomes, usually undesired, whereas destiny can be accepted or rejected, and implies an exaltation, an elite relationship with higher powers. Fate is impersonal; destiny is personal. Thus it’s significant, I think, that in the original German text of the novel, Aeneas alone—the son of a Trojan prince and the goddess Aphrodite—is granted a Bestimmung, a destiny. As Pollak recounts, Aeneas leaves Troy when the Greeks conquer it and, as decreed by the goddess Athena, eventually founds Rome. Had Laocoön succeeded in persuading the Trojans that the Grecian horse was a trick, he would have foiled Athena’s plan. Aeneas’s destiny was to found Rome, Pollak points out; Laocoön’s fate, and that of his sons, was to suffer agonizing deaths.
Pollak calls his own ability to discern the authenticity and identity of artworks “an inexplicable God-given talent, the way one might be born with poetic or artistic talent.” This divine grant brought him renown as an art dealer, cataloguer, and collector (barred as he was from academia), and allowed him seemingly to evade, for periods, his fate as a European Jew. But Pollak knows better than to bestow “destiny” on himself. Like Laocoön wearing his—Pollak’s—arm, he doesn’t reach upward, as if to seize, or to be pulled up to, a noble destiny bestowed by gods. Pollak’s memoir reveals a life shaped by forces beyond his will. He tasted the paradise of happiness, then it was taken from him. Destroyed, the beloved palazzo that housed him and his family and collections, to make way for expanding the Italian Senate; destroyed, the physical building of an antiquities museum he founded, and the new homes for the artworks never approached the ideal originals. Anti-Semitism forced on him an earlier exile from his terra benedetta, Rome; a career outside of academia; dismissals from institutions that have only been bettered by his contributions; and attacks on his integrity and social standing.
Is there a point where an accumulation of defeats tips one’s life over an edge, into a submission to fate? Pollak’s Arm poses the question of agency in one’s life, of an individual’s “fate” and its relationship to a collective “fate,” whether ethnic, national, or any other group that one’s birth or circumstances dictate. It poses, too, the question that arises (and subsides) time and again: What is personal expression worth when weighed against the political issues that confound societies, and even our home planet? Pollak maintains: “The stories we tell are all that remain in the end, you know. Stories and art. It’s how life goes on.”
Hans von Trotha has told a beautiful, complex story in Pollak’s Arm. In writing about it, the temptation is to keep quoting and quoting. There is so much in it; it’s crammed with precious treasures, as is Pollak’s apartment itself, and Pollak’s memory. Swept up, like K., it’s easy to forget, to be surprised at the book’s relative briefness. A mere 138 pages. Memories of perfect happiness, and an aching lament at how fleeting that happiness is.