Monday, February 11, 2013

Lola Bensky, by Lilly Brett

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

This charming autobiographical novel by Lilly Brett balances humour and a light tough against the dark background of the Auschwitz death camps, and how Holocaust survivors cannot help but pass these traumas onto their children.

Lola Bensky is a 20-year-old Jewish-Australian music journalist roaming the world and securing some of the biggest names in rock and pop for interviews. Page one opens with Lola interviewing Jimi Hendrix, and then moving through a series of very big names: Jim Morrison, Mama Cass, Janis Joplin, Mick Jagger. The names go on and on.

In between the conversations about music, style and pop-world concerns, Lola’s many personal anxieties slip in. Superficially, she is always obsessing over her diet and weight. On a far more serious level, her parents were survivors of Auschwitz. While speaking to Mick Jagger or Mama Cass she almost unconsciously starts talking about the Holocaust. It’s such an essential part of her being (Lola often calls herself ‘very Jewish’) that she can’t help it.

A large part of Lola’s fragility and confusion about life derives from her parents experiences in Auschwitz. Renia and Edek clearly love their daughter, but they don’t communicate well. Nor are they at all demonstrative. Lola never gets any physical contact from them. What she does get are horrible bits and pieces of information about what happened in the death camps. Lilly Brett does an amazing job of balancing these intermittent descriptions of Nazi hell with the often charmingly goofy aspects of Lola’s personality. Lola is a delicate flower, sensitive and intelligent. The weight of the Holocaust sits heavily on her psyche while she tries to understand the world she lives in.

Lola Bensky is an autobiographical novel. Lilly Brett did work as a music journalist during the 60s. In 1967 she covered the Monterery International Pop Festival, where she interviewed many of the big names that appear in the novel. The dialogues with famous people have a surreal and fascinating quality. On one level, you know they are based on personal encounters, so they have their interest on that basis alone. As fiction, the dialogues read as touching exchanges between young people in a time of change just starting out in life. Stars like Janis Joplin, Cher, Jimi Hendrix and Paul McCartney are portrayed as sweet, innocent, intelligent, inquisitive and enthusiastic. Lola is a faintly sad and unconsciously funny interviewer. In fact, there’s plenty of well delivered humour throughout: when Lola is discussing sexuality with Janis Joplin, she thinks to herself how she only cares for her Olivetti typewriter and tape recorder.

Most of the novel’s time frame is set in the 1960s, but on two occasions we are taken forward to when Lola Bensky is 30 and 63 years of age. Then we are again taken back to the 60s. Finally the novel ends in contemporary New York. The different eras are nicely brought together when at a New York fundraiser a 63-year-old Lola runs into Mick Jagger, although he doesn’t recognise her.

On the surface Lola Bensky is a sweet story about a young woman first discovering the world, asking famous rock stars for their opinions on love, life and what the best breakfast cereal is. At a deeper level it’s about how parents traumatised by war, torture and murder pass these traumas onto their children. It is also about how such experiences are so terrible that they are often beyond the  power of language to express.

Lola Bensky, by Lilly Brett. Published by Hamish Hamilton. ISBN: 9781926428475  RRP: $29.99