Mathias Freese’s book, The i Tetralogy, (published by Wheatmark) is essentially four short novels in one volume. Each of these narratives revolves around a single topic: the Holocaust.
The first (“i”), is narrated by an inmate in a death camp, victim to the random whims of the German guards. It follows his efforts initially to survive, and later to befriend and care for a younger inmate. The second section (“I Am Gunther”) takes the point of view of a camp guard named Gunther, a frighteningly cruel and thoughtful character whose hatred is palpable through the words on the page. The third and fourth sections (“Gunther’s Lament” and “Gunther Redux”) are told respectively by an aging Gunther, living out his latter years in a peaceful American town; and one of Gunther’s sons, who struggles to come to terms with the his identity, and the acts his father has comitted.
Of the four the first two are the most powerful. They are both brutally violent and unremitting in their depiction of the horror of the camps. Even having previously read many descriptions of the atrocities of the Holocaust, one realises that it has almost always been prettified, always made, if not pleasant, then at least palatable. The i Tetralogy, however, is written with an unflinching honesty. Frequently it verges on the physically unpleasant to read–but then, as the author states in the explanatory interview that accompanies the book, the Holocaust itself was in no way a clean or palatable event.
The latter two sections are far more static and introspective, dealing with feelings of lingering hatred and guilt. All the characters are well-drawn, believeable, and written with a large degree of honesty and intelligence. Gunther, the camp guard, is particularly fascinating; he narrates first in “I Am Gunther”, patiently and with absolute hate performing his duties in the camp; then resumes his narrative fifty years later, living in Mineola, America, his hatred now syphoned off onto his family and his life. Grimly, he constructs a replica of the camp from model train components. He is both frightening and authentic, and his presence as a narrator adds another dimension to the volume.
Throughout, the level of writing remains impeccable. Only a single minor gripe occured while reading: although each narrator’s tone is unique, all the characters seem to speak with the voice of the author. In a story that is otherwise painfully realistic, this style of dialogue is jarring. That aside the writing is sublime.