Review: “Pollak’s Arm”

“Laocoon and His Sons” at Vatican with “Pollak’s Arm” attached. (vaticantips.com)

Pollak’s Arm, a historical novel by Hans von Trotha, is not about Pollak’s arm but about the arm his protagonist, art collector Ludwig Pollak, found, which had been missing for centuries from the shoulder of Laocoön (pronounced lay-o-coo-on), the central figure of the ancient sculptural group “Laocoön and His Sons.”

Laocoon with falsely raised arm. (Princeton Art Museum)

Ludwig Pollak (1868-1943) was born in Prague, an archaeologist, antiquities collector, museum director and associate of art collectors from Freud to J.P. Morgan. He found the original arm of Laocoön in a stonemason’s workshop.

Lost also in Pollak’s Arm, regrettably, are quotation marks to denote passages spoken by Pollak to the narrator on Oct. 16, 1943, the day on which the action (almost entirely dialogue) takes place in von Trotha’s book. The following day the Jews of Rome were rounded up by its Nazi occupiers. Pollak and his family were shipped by train to Auschwitz and died there, despite an offer of sanctuary in the Vatican. The narrator tried to persuade Pollak to take advantage of that offer, to flee his elegant home under papal protection, but he insisted upon spending the entire night telling stories of his magnificent career.

The absence of quote marks in the book is, I imagine, either an artistic conceit of the author or reflects his reluctance to sanctify his subject’s words with quote marks, for which he may have valid reasons or not. My reviewer’s copy of the book has no preface to explain the decision. Pollak left diaries, but I don’t know whether the author took Pollak’s quotations from them. The absence of quote marks makes it hard to follow who is saying what to whom; moreover, it seems to undermine the credibility of the narrative – already strained by the protagonist’s prolonged refusal to seek refuge. Is that how it really happened? Much of the book’s tension arises from its narrator’s repeated attempts to interrupt Pollak’s story-telling and bring him to act upon or at least recognize his peril.

Still, the stories are spellbinding and eventually the reader (like the narrator) is carried along by the narrative. A reader can try to ignore who’s saying what. To me, the most fascinating parts are Pollak’s descriptions of why finding the lost arm of Laocoön changes the symbolism of the statuary group, which displays the death of Laocoön, a priest, and his two sons at the hands (so to speak) of snakes sent by the goddess Athena to kill him for warning the Trojans of the deception inside the large, hollow, wooden horse filled with Greek soldiers left as a “gift” at the gates of Troy by its supposedly withdrawing besiegers.

Athena, according to the poet Virgil, wanted Troy, under siege for a decade by Athens, destroyed so that Rome could eventually be founded.

What a punishment [says Pollak, supposedly]. Just imagine: the Trojan Horse rolls into a city. A clever ruse. Isn’t that right? Had it failed, the story would have turned out differently. Troy would have survived. Rome would not have been founded. And Laocoön and his sons would have lived. But it wasn’t what the gods wanted. Athena, in particular, was adamant in her desire to see Rome built. The goddess wanted Aeneas to found it. This is why Virgil includes Laocoön’s tale in the Aeneid, because it is central to Aeneas’s destiny as the founder of Rome. Then along comes this priest. He senses something. We know that his intuition is correct, that this thing rolling into the Trojans’ midst will be their downfall. … And Laocoön throws his spear at the wood, angering Athena. It was her plan he nearly thwarted.

It is fair to ask what a priest was doing with a spear, not to mention whether there was a Trojan Horse at all, or whether Athena truly smote Laocoön with snakes. It’s in Virgil, so … such questions are above my pay grade. In any event, the statuary group was discovered in 1506. A supposed copy of Laocoön’s lost right arm, extended upward in exultant contention with a snake, was attached after the group was disinterred and relocated to the Vatican. Long after, in 1905, Pollak found the lost right arm. Pollak says:

The true right arm of Laocoön was back, but it wasn’t extended in exultation; no, the arm is bent, almost twisted. This hero is no hero. That isn’t my fault. I didn’t chisel the arm. All I did was find it. And recognize it. … I immediately saw that it had to be the arm of Laocoön. Now they call it Pollak’s arm. That is how I will be remembered by posterity, as a broken arm.

However, Pollak continues:

While studying the statue, I ascertained that [the lost] arm is too small. Not by much, but it is too small. The surface of the marble is also different, as is the color. The arm I found must therefore belong to a copy; smaller by one ninth, to be precise. The sting of disappointment is never greater than when it punctures euphoria. It is, at least, a contemporary copy. That much is certain. And the message the arm conveys is no different in a copy than in the original, which has yet to be found.

Pollak believes the copy he found is of Laocoön’s arm bent back, not stretched out, as the Vatican had long assumed. “Laocoön’s face is anguish incarnate.One can understand,” says Pollak, “why Vatican priests of the Counter-Reformation would see the suffering of Christ in it.” The alternative story of Laocoön is “far less heroic. It is simpler and more human and true. I am convinced that it’s the tale the three sculptors from Rhodes had in mind as they chiseled, and it is this Laocoön that they carved from stone – not Virgil’s.” Pollak continues:

According to this story, the serpents were sent after Laocoön because he fornicated with his wife on the altar. As a priest, he should not have sired any children. Though the gods pardoned that transgression, his desecration of the altar was different. It meant death for him and his sons. A gruesome death, a disgraceful end for a priest. Meaningless, not heroic. Hence the angled arm. The snake has long since won. The harrowed face shows the suffering of a condemned blasphemer, not the struggle of a courageous hero. Viewers are meant to delight in this hideous ordeal, or perhaps be frightened by it. But he’s no hero, and neither nobility nor grandeur is on display.

Leaving aside that a priest siring children is okay but doing so on an altar is punishable by death, it is understandable why Pollak’s arm caused controversy in Rome. How could Pollak be sure of the authenticity of the arm he found, which he admitted was itself a copy of an original that remains lost? And how can he now (in the telling of von Trotha) be so sure that the outstretched, heroic arm is not the one true arm? Maybe Pollak is not as great as he thinks he is. Maybe the arm he found was not related to the Laocoön statuary group, even though there were attachment holes linking the arm to the shoulder that matched.

Maybe using the literary device that stands for spoken language would help the author communicate the situation better to readers. Maybe the lack of quotes reflects the author’s doubts about the authenticity of the issues with which his protagonist, Pollak, contends. Maybe the lack of quotes will be remedied in a second edition of the book.

Pollak’s Arm is published by New Vessel Press, which brings European books to an English readership. (I reviewed its Villa of Delirium here.) Hans von Trotha is a German historian, novelist, journalist and literary editor who lives in Berlin. His book is a fascinating account of collecting art and antiquities in Rome, of the period of its occupation by the Nazis, and a sad testament of the extermination of the Pollak family, a cloud that hovers over this work of historical fiction.

By Hubert Robert (1733-1808), a romantic depiction of Laocoon Group’s discovery. (Wikipedia)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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