October 16, 1943, inside the Vatican as darkness descends upon Rome. Having been alerted to the Nazi plan to round up the city's Jewish population the next day, Monsignor F. dispatches an envoy to a nearby palazzo to bring Ludwig Pollak and his family to safety within the papal premises. But Pollak shows himself in no hurry to leave his home and accept the eleventh-hour offer of refuge. Pollak's visitor is obliged to take a seat and listen as he recounts his life story.
So are we, readers, swept up in the memories of an impassioned and fascinatingly erudite art lover ... 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.
... a deceptive 138 pages, possible to read in one sitting but, once read, impossible to stop thinking about ... a quiet and surprising masterpiece set during World War II, certain to make readers think deeply about history, philosophy and art.
Mr. von Trotha is a German historian and journalist, and this sturdy, somber novel, translated by Elisabeth Lauffer, holds one’s attention more for its exploration of classical antiquities than for any literary flourishes. Pollak’s late-night meditations turn often to the intersection of art and empire.