Very few writers can adequately convey the scale of suffering in the Holocaust, or what it meant to those who survived. Perhaps the most articulate, Auschwitz survivor and author Primo Levi, also warned against searching for redemptive human qualities in the quagmire of hell, because survival is often feral and instinctive, not heroic.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a dramatised account (historical fiction, if you will) of the experiences of Lale Sokolov, born Ludwig Eisenberg, who is 25 when he is sent to Auschwitz in 1942.

Author Heather Morris interviewed Sokolov over three years, when he was aged 87 to 90.

The book is inexorably numbing and sorrowful but, like any other, a novel set in the Holocaust can be flawed.

The plot is turgid. Fate flips Sokolov a fortunate coin and he is saved from torturous work, instead being seconded to tattoo identity numbers onto prisoners. Early on, he tattoos an 18-year-old girl, Gita, and falls in love instantly.

Mostly, the rest of the novel is a dull, diarised summation of his thoughts about Gita, and how he manoeuvres around the camp’s routine to be with her. The hurdles he overcomes are structured as telegraphed episodes of the well-known features and terrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau: Sokolov is unnervingly intimidated by the infamous Josef Mengele; he shares quarters with the Roma prior to their liquidation in the gas chambers; and he interacts with the newer Hungarian arrivals, who were systematically murdered from 1944 and represented the largest single nationality killed at Auschwitz.

In isolation, Sokolov’s nine lives — surviving typhus and torture, and miraculously evading summary execution for multiple infractions — are credible. But an accumulation of implausible details gnaws at reality. He befriends Polish contract workers from outside the camp, and they unconditionally provide extra food and a rapid supply of medicine when needed. He is overtly, proudly, assertive with some SS guards.

And after the arrival of the Russians he straightforwardly walks to freedom and finds his way home to Slovakia.

Morris takes the narrative to absurd levels in describing a football match between SS guards and inmates. Sokolov may have told her of matches — there was a soccer field near Crematorium 3 that was used by British POWs imprisoned separately from the main Auschwitz complex.

But it’s impossible to imagine games between SS guards and the emaciated prisoners they regarded as subhuman and with whom contact was shunned.

Morris doesn’t unravel the moral ambiguities of Sokolov’s position, the greyest of lines between doing what he needed to do to survive and facilitating, in even the tiniest way, the camp’s evil functioning. As the tattooist, he was officially part of the political arm of the SS, and Sokolov’s apparent freedom of movement is attributable to his uttering "politische abteilung (political department)" and raising his bag of tattooing instruments. He knows that he skirts a fine line with perceptions of collaboration: "I can only hope that one day I am not judged as a perpetrator or a collaborator."

A better writer would have made more of this complexity by examining themes of forced collaboration and survivor’s guilt.

Smatterings of schmaltz

Sokolov’s love for Gita is predictably stylised. A scene where they furtively make love is described in the terms of a romance novel. Their conversations comprise clichéd, surreal, Hollywood dialogue.

Even their eventual, extraordinary reunion at the end of the war is disappointing. It should make us weep, but it feels detached and stagnant in its cloying obviousness: "Lale sweeps Gita up into his arms and kisses her."

Love stories should resonate. The triumph of the human spirit should feel, well, triumphant.

Perhaps the underlying problem with this book is that it stemmed from Sokolov and, ultimately, his story should have been told as a biography.

"I didn’t find the idea — the idea found me," Morris acknowledges.

Themes of sacrifice and struggle, fear and heroics, passion and commitment — these are only touched on. We are left with a narrative shell, an outline of a man’s incredible survival that has the textbook context of Auschwitz but not the intuitive sensibility of its hellfire horrors and torments, nor the complex emotions of those pulled from the brink of the abyss.

If Auschwitz was an amalgam of Dante’s seven circles of hell, writers who search for fragments of redemptive humanity need to dig into the depths. Unfortunately, this novel goes only skin-deep.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris (Bonnier Zaffre Publishing)

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