A tale to be inhaled in an afternoon

A tale to be inhaled in an afternoon – Chasing the King of Hearts

Modern Traveller devours Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts in a single day – reflecting, in the city of Krakow, on fate, identity and the art of translation.


A tiny volume, Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts recounts the enthralling tale of a young Jewish woman who overcomes great adversity over the course of the Second World War to save, and to be reunited with, the man she loves.

There are, of course, a series of twists and turns: the final one the greatest of all, and Krall pairs sharp, witty remarks with the sobering truth of an ordinary Polish woman’s trials and terrors in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Peirene Press prides itself on publishing English translations of contemporary European novellas fit to be soaked up in just one day. They really are on to something.

I pulled the prettily-bound pages from the mini-library accumulating in the boot of our full-to-the-brim car, and found a quiet corner in which to immerse myself in Izolda’s world.

Having intended merely to pause for a moment with a cup of tea, I sat entranced, turning page after page, curled up in an armchair as I virtually inhaled Krall’s gripping, present-tense prose — from start to finish, and just in time for dinner.

I lived briefly in Warsaw a decade or so ago, and had just made a return visit to Krakow. I have, over the years, attempted to read translations of a number of Polish novels, biographies and autobiographies. Many have been striking – but none so much as Philip Boehm’s translation of Hanna Krall’s biographical work.

Izolda is steely, bright and brave: she virtually jumps from the page as we follow her from the Warsaw Ghetto to the emptiness of Auschwitz. Her experiences call into question the very notion of a single fate, or of a set identity for any of us: here is a woman unwilling to break, but cunning and courageous enough to bend in order to survive.

Krall writes with remarkable lightness and simplicity, crafting snapshots of moments — from the ordinary to the terribly cruel — to create a powerful mosaic of one of 20th-century Europe’s darkest hours through the eyes of a woman who refuses to give in.

Here is a voice, crisp and clear, delivering an arresting narrative of great historical value: a voice which resonates with a reader living seventy years after the main character’s struggles occurred.

Peirene Press produces translations of a number of such novels each year. I would be intrigued to discover how they make their selections, and how they choose the translators set to bring these words to an anglophone audience. Their work appears impeccable.

For someone whose pleasure lies as much in the discovery, the art of collection, as in the turning of the pages themselves, Peirene’s novellas are a dream come true. With quirky cover art, the little volumes sit side by side perfectly, filling one’s bookshelf with a taste of literature which one might never otherwise have encountered.

These are carefully chosen and cultivated, thought-provoking tales of passion and bravery, wrought in clear and insightful prose. In short, they are stories that you want to pick up, soak up and share.

Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts was first published in Polish in 2006. Philip Boehm’s English translation was published by Peirene Press, London (2013). 

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