ReadingRoom

BookBubble podcast: Christine Leunens

Stacy Gregg and Nicky Pellegrino continue their Book Bubble podcast series with an interview with Christine Leunens, whose book won Taika Waititi an Oscar.

Christine Leunen’s Caging Skies was originally published in 2008, but is once more on the international best-seller lists thanks to Taiki Waititi's daring adaptation, Jojo Rabbit. Waititi won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay and in this podcast Leunens talks about being on the red carpet that night, her feelings at having her words rewritten for screen, and the differences between her novel and the movie.

Born in Hartford, Connecticut to an Italian mother and a Belgian father, Leunens is now based in Nelson, New Zealand. She's currently working on the screenplay adaptation of her fourth novel, an historical Franco-New Zealand story, South of Memory, set around the time of the Rainbow Warrior bombing.

An extract from Caging Skies by Christine Leunens (Vintage, $38)

I slid the tip of the blade into one of the cracks and levered until it gave, then resolved to come down with the knife as hard as I could on whatever I found. But my arm proved disobedient to my brain’s commands. Stuck in the small space at my feet was a young woman. I was staring her right in the face, a woman, with breasts, whose life was entirely mine as she looked at me with stifled fear — or maybe it was only curiosity.

Unable to breathe, I brought the knife down just to prove to myself I could. By the time it stopped against her throat I knew that if I didn’t destroy her, Jew that she was, she would destroy me, yet somehow it was like having a woman as a prisoner in my own house, a Jew in a cage. At the same time I was disgusted with myself because I failed to do my duty. She must have known the knife wasn’t her foe any more, because tears welled up in her eyes and she looked away, stupidly exposing her neck. I closed the panel and left.

Who was she? How had my parents known of her? How long had she been there? Years? Had she become a woman in our home, closed up in such a small dark space? From that moment on, whatever I was doing, freely, I couldn’t help but compare it with what she must be doing, lying in the dark. I wondered what she thought of me. Did she fear me? Did she hope to see me again? Did she say anything to my mother? "Your son tried to kill me." "Be careful. He knows."

At the same time, I was aware I hadn’t lived up to Adolf Hitler’s standard and a sense of guilt came over me. I tried to tell myself I hadn’t behaved so badly — after all what harm could she do to the Reich as long as she was closed up? Bothering no one more than a mouse in its hole?

I changed my mind at least twice before going up again. What did I have to be afraid of? The Gestapo? It wasn’t just that.

When I opened the panel, she frowned at the daylight, I think it hurt her eyes.

"I don’t know day from night any more," she said, covering her face with her hands, then she opened two fingers to uncurtain one eye, like my sister used to when playing peek-a-boo.

Her hair hadn’t been combed, fine ones sticking to the sides of her face, and as I looked away, I caught a glimpse of myself in the glass of a framed lithograph. Framed, in sorts, my face looked like one of those degenerate paintings shown to us in school. I found it hard to look at her after just seeing myself, but the way she looked at me, I never would’ve known my face had been scarred. Other people looked from one side to the other and tried to pick one side to talk to but nothing seemed out of place to her. It was one whole face in front of one person, and then, to my simultaneous satisfaction and dissatisfaction, I remembered that Jews were fond of the ugly artwork they made.

In my mind I was guessing how many years older she was than me — five, six, at least — before I asked, "What’s your name?"

"Elsa Kor."

"I think you mean, Elsa Sarah Kor."

She didn’t answer, and I would’ve liked to feel an anger that I didn’t.

I told her she could come out, and she only said thank you and took to biting her fingernails. We stayed like that in silence until I wanted to close her up and leave as last time, only this time I had trouble bringing myself to.

After that, for some reason I wanted her to hear me as much as possible. I came home hoping my voice carried upstairs, I moved about stomping, added to my every cough and yawn. I wanted her to be as aware of me as I was of her. In the morning my heart drummed in my chest before I’d even opened my eyes. Would I get to see her? How would I go about it? By that time I was trying to get Adolf Hitler off my mind. His constant reproach irked me: my incapacity, indecorum, infidelity, all starting with in and ejecting me out of his good opinion. Whenever I came across a picture of him in a magazine, father figure that he was, my insides contracted and I turned the page.

BookBubble is made with the support of Creative New Zealand Toi Aotearoa

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