Martin Carnoy, The Many Lives of Michał K. Published in French as La vie mouvementée de Michał K. (trans. Sylvie Lefranc). Paris: Bouquins, 2023. 528 pages.
Martin Carnoy is no stranger to writing books. A professor in the education faculty at Stanford and consultant to governments and international organizations, he has a long list of books to his credit in his area of specialization, the economics of education, and social policy more generally. But this book is very much a departure for him. Now in his eighties, he has written his first novel.
Carnoy says it was only late in life that he learned how to structure stories and develop characters – clearly, he learned his lesson well. In Michał Klein he has created a vivid and complex character whose story unfolds against the dark backdrop of World War II in Nazi-occupied Poland. (In an early attempt to protect the family, Michał’s father obtains false identity cards with the Polish surname Klimko; the initial in the title reflects this ambiguity.) While this is not a conventional Holocaust story in that ghettos and concentration camps figure in it only indirectly, it is very much a story of the tragic destruction of Polish Jewry.
Unlike his protagonist, Carnoy and his immediate family escaped direct experience of that destruction; the family left Poland for the United States in 1940, when Martin was two years old. However, he grew up with the awareness that his family had fled a looming disaster and that he had relatives who had remained in Europe and been murdered. Without being autobiographical, the novel is firmly rooted in Carnoy’s family history.
Michał’s comfortable existence in a Jewish bourgeois family in the Polish town of Kalisz, near the German border, is violently disrupted by the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, when he is 14. The story takes him to Lublin farther east, where his family flees in the vain hope of evading the Nazis; to a barn where he is taken in by a Polish farmer; and then, for most of the war years, to the forests where, joining a band of partisans, he not only survives but resists. In the troubled postwar years, he runs afoul of the Communists who are emerging as Poland’s new masters and finds his way to Germany, Mexico and ultimately the United States, pursued by the long arm of the Polish secret police.
Michał is hardened by his experiences and becomes an accomplished and ruthless killer. Increasingly revenge becomes a central motivation for him. This too is rooted in Carnoy’s family history. In 1944, settled in the United States, Martin’s father had to be dissuaded from joining the Office of Strategic Services, parachuting into Germany and killing as many SS as he could.
In one scene in postwar Munich, Michał discovers four former SS officers in an apartment and, with a friend from his partisan days, kills them all. Whereas a number of his comrades get on with their lives – mostly in Palestine, soon to become Israel – for Michał “bygones are not bygones.” The chief object of his desire for revenge is his brother-in-law Leszek, the son of the Polish farmer who took him in. Michał’s beloved sister, taken in by the same farmer, marries Leszek, giving up her Jewish identity. But she is not aware that Leszek is a Nazi collaborator, which Michał discovers when he observes Leszek as part of a group of soldiers killing Jews in the nearby town of Łęczna. As survivors scatter after the war, he goes to great lengths to track down his sister and Leszek, whom he intends to kill, freeing his sister from the clutches of a Jew-hater. He eventually catches up with them several years later in the Hudson Valley town of Rhinebeck, New York, equipped with his Lugar and intending to carry out his plan. But what transpires is somewhat unexpected; I won’t divulge it here.
I had the unnerving experience of reading this book in October, in the early days of the Israel-Hamas war. Reading Carnoy’s pages and hearing the news blended together in my mind. The time of radical insecurity for Jews in which Carnoy’s story had immersed me seemed to have reemerged. The images of Jews slaughtered by Jew-hating mobs were eerily familiar. Michał Klein’s life was deformed by his need to exact revenge; would the Israeli response to October 7 be deformed in the same way? Was the attack on Gaza shaped by strategic considerations or by revenge? Certainly, revenge was on the minds of many Israelis, and was reflected in the statements of Israeli cabinet ministers. Were the military commanders more level-headed? I started reading The Many Lives of Michał K. as a story set in a pivotal period in history; it has become a commentary on current events.
The Many Lives of Michał K. has been translated into French and published in Paris. As I write in November, it has not yet found an English-language publisher. It well deserves one.