Book Talk: *Block 11*, by Piero degli Antoni (via Shelf Awareness)

cover image: BLOCK 11 (via
Block 11
Piero degli Antoni (translated by Erin Waggener)
St. Martin’s Press (October 2012), hardcover (ISBN 1250001021 / 9781250001023)
Fiction, 240 pages

A version of the following was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (October 30, 2012) as a compensated review assignment. An advance reader’s copy of the book was provided to facilitate the assignment.

Opening lines:
“’Wake up. Wake up, my darling.’

“The old man sleeping next to her opened his eyes with great effort.
“’Mmm … what is it, libling?’
“’It’s time to get up. Today is the day, have you forgotten? Come on, I’ll get breakfast ready.’
“The woman thrust the sheets aside with a force that allowed her feet to slide down toward the floor. With her soles planted firmly on the ground, she steadied her body, her weight on her elbow, bracing herself for the next step.
She was old and tired, and the maneuvering required simply to stand up grew more exhausting with each passing day.”

Book description, via the publisher’s website:New York, the present: An old woman and her husband sit down for a breakfast of black bread and coffee at a table set for ten. Eight chairs remain empty.

Auschwitz, Spring 1944: Following a successful escape from the camp, a group of ten prisoners are rounded up for execution. But at the last minute, counter-orders are given. Since the camp needs every inmate for labor, only one prisoner will be sacrificed. And it is the job of the other nine prisoners, locked up in an empty building in Block 11 with nothing but a piece of paper and pencil, to decide by dawn who will die. Otherwise they will all go to the gallows.

Thus begins a night of storytelling with tales of horror, secrecy, and betrayal, but also of love and great humanity, as these ten prisoners debate who deserves to live and who deserves to die in a night filled with violence, emotion, and shocking revelations. 

Comments: On a day just months before the end of World War II, several inmates have managed a successful escape from the Auschwitz concentration camp, and there will be consequences for those remaining. Ten prisoners are locked inside Block 11, the “prison within the prison,” and given instructions: by dawn, they must choose one member of the group to be turned over to the firing squad for execution. If they fail to comply, they’ll all be shot. Meanwhile, at home with his son, the camp’s commander engages in a game of chess, through which he attempts to mirror and predict what is occurring in the block that night.

The group in Block 11 is not randomly chosen at all; it is intentionally representative of the population of the camp, and its members have complicated relationships with one another that, in some cases, pre-date their current circumstances. These relationships will be revealed and reshaped over the course of the night, through conversation and argument and momentary outbreaks of horrific violence. And as they struggle with their orders, the commander–who seems to possess a surprisingly intimate amount of knowledge about each of these prisoners–tweaks the rules, orchestrating a human chess game from afar.

The cast of characters in Block 11 is large, but author Piero degli Antoni manages to distinguish each of them as individuals as their terrible night goes on; they will surprise each other as they confront their terrible conflict, and they may surprise the reader too. Published in its original Italian in 2010 and now translated into English for the first time, Block 11 is an intense, morally complex psychological thriller. 

Rating: 3.75/5

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