Pollak’s Arm

Hans von Trotha, trans. from the German by Elisabeth Lauffer. New Vessel, $16.95 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-954404-00-7

German historian and novelist von Trotha (The English Garden) offers a brilliant take on collector and curator Ludwig Pollak (1868–1943), whose discovery of the missing right arm of the Vatican’s Laocoön sculpture created a sensation in 1906. Von Trotha imagines the final days of the famed scholar and art dealer: in 1943, an envoy to the Vatican pleads with Pollak to leave occupied Rome before the German SS arrest him and his family. Rather than flee, Pollak determines to tell his story and commences to recount the stories behind the many treasured objects he’s collected over the years. As he relates, Laocoön warned the Trojans of the wooden horse meant to destroy Rome. Because he angered the gods, Athena sent serpents to kill him and his two sons. Pollak saw the bent arm, unearthed by a stonecutter on Via Labicana, as a sign of anguished suffering. Against the backdrop of Rome falling to the fascists and the worsening violence against Jews, Pollak’s words gain intensity and resonance (“Man will never win against serpents sent by the gods”). There is to be found in here as well a cautionary tale about the beauty of art often being no match for the boot and the fist. This multilayered account of myth and injustice has much to offer. (Feb.)