“Book Review: Relief by Execution”
Reviewed by Liam Anthony
A haunting, compulsive read of one writer’s journey to unite the past and the present.
Author Gint Aras’s pocket-sized memoir Relief by Execution captivates me from the very beginning. It opens with a quote taken from the Mauthausen concentration camp’s audio tour: “In a place where dehumanization is the aim and the norm, any attempt to preserve humanity must be seen as an act of resistance.” Aras meditates on this concept throughout the book, exploring the duality of his own personal narrative with that of his visit to one of the most notorious concentration camps in the world.
Like many great memoirists, the author unpacks his present life by returning first to his past. After arriving in Linz, Austria to visit the camp as an adult, he takes readers right back to his childhood, a time of being beaten by his father in Cicero, Illinois. Aras shares the candid memories of the abuse and discusses the influence it has had on him as an adult. At times compulsive and suspenseful, Aras’s active storytelling makes this book a galloping, energetic read.
In Illinois, he lives within an enclave of Lithuanian immigrants who have fled Soviet occupation in 1945. He shares memories of the immigrants in this ordinary American town during the 1970s and 80s, including a snapshot of a priest at the writer’s school. “We loved Father Mark because he was a thoughtful young priest who allowed us to speak freely.” As a reader, I consider Father Mark a thoughtful young priest as well, especially when he poses the question of “What is racism?”
As an adult, the author meets a man called Stasz in a Chicago coffeehouse. The pair talk about Linz, Austria and how the writer never got the chance to visit Mauthausen while he lived there between 1996-1999. In this book, Stasz comes across as a talisman of wisdom, nearly reprimanding the author for not visiting the camp. A standout line from their conversation capitalizes on some advice Stasz gives to the writer: “For a writer, discovering poison is valuable.”
I feel in awe at how stunning the prose is in this book. It makes the reader feel as though they are really in Mauthausen with its sensory imagery, and in spite of the absence of innocence in the writer’s past, there is always a space for humor within it. In addition to how sensorially he describes the camp, Aras also comments on thought-provoking nuances like the perimeter of the electric fence and how it separates a place of death with an idyllic landscape.
Relief by Execution is probably one of the most poignant nonfiction books I have read in a long time. It unpacks questions of identity, explores curiosities of what it means be a victim, and reflects on the importance of telling your own story. The author ends his book with ambivalence, but the optimistic reader is sure to still feel hopeful, indebted that the author’s story has been shared and left to impact many of us.
Publisher: Homebound Publications
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