Neither Anna nor the Swallow Man have languages of their own.
Anna was born Polish, but soon afterward, her father disappeared in a Nazi purge, and she fled into the European woods with the Swallow Man. The cost of this rescue: her language and her name.
Throughout Gavriel Savit’s debut novel, “Anna and the Swallow Man,” the young girl takes on whatever name and language is appropriate to the situation at hand. Without this supernatural flexibility, without these fluid identities, the two would stand no chance of surviving the war.
“On a very basic, banal level, what language you speak dictates the people you can talk to. It dictates your identity and the way that you move through the world,” Savit says. “There’s a lot going on in the way that we use language.”
Savit wields a large vocabulary with poetic ease and without showing off, his diction controlled and clear, courtesy of a career in musical theater. One of his favorite “indoor sports,” he notes, is finding words that are specific to a single language. A recent favorite is a German word for the feeling of being alone in the woods:
In “Anna and the Swallow Man,” Savit wanted to share the magic of language by creating characters that claim no language, but speak many of them, and he wanted to use those characters to explore the tragic complexity of World War II in Europe.
We talked to the actor and author about his new book and the common qualities of his two arts.
Q: How long have you wanted to be an author? Are acting and writing connected careers?
A: I’ve always been a reader and I’m always working on a story somewhere in my head, but it was never like something actively I was going to pursue. I mainly set about writing “Anna and the Swallow Man” because, as an actor performing musical theater, very frequently you spend periods of time out of work. I was bored and I had an idea and I played around with it. People have been really receptive to it.
Q: In acting, you have to understand the character you’re playing and the other characters you’re interacting with. Were you able to transfer that?
A: Absolutely. Sanford Meisner, a famous acting teacher, defines acting as “behaving truthfully under artificial circumstances.” There’s certainly a lot of that involved in conveying a recognizable experience in a fictional character.
Q: Did you want to present that World War II in a vivid way as a reminder that real people lived through it?
A: Both of my grandfathers fought in the war, so it was a thing people who I knew and had talked to had experienced. I think that there’s this process probably involved with the ending of that generation wherein we have really started to mythologize World War II and the Holocaust in really strong ways. It’s like the rhetorical tactic – if you disagree with anyone online vehemently enough, it’s only a matter of time before you’re calling that person Hitler. It’s become in some ways a mythological bogeyman, and Nazis, in general, are the same way. It’s in some ways troubling, because that sort of turning the thing into a monolith robs them of their culpability as human beings.
Ultimately, human beings are capable of empathy. To turn Nazis into some sort of evil orc, goblin creatures without that human sense of empathy and moral compass, I think lets them off the hook in a difficult way.
Q: The Anna and the Swallow Man characters – without their languages, it’s not presented as them being without an identity, but having an expanded identity.
A: I grew up in a traditional Jewish background and I was taught Hebrew from a very young age, so I have this feeling that I have more than one valid and full angle on the universe because of those multiple language systems. It’s not that you have a fractured identity, but you have more than one option.
Q: There are portions of the book that are quite minimal and bleak. Who do you picture your best audience to be?
A: It’s the kind of book, I think, which is for individuals more than age groups. It’s more about the kind of person who is struggling with questions about what the world is and what it looks like and the value of uncertainty and the value of fact versus truth; those are not necessarily questions that are confined to any one age group. I certainly know sixth-graders who have really gotten the book, and I also know 30-year-olds who probably aren’t ready to work through some of those questions. That’s fine. Not every book has to be for every person.
Because it’s got a young girl as a protagonist, people want to class it as for young girls, but young girls are human beings and struggle with human questions, just like anyone else.
Q: The Swallow Man can be quite unreadable. Did he naturally come together to be that enigmatic?
A: The meeting of a sort of theatrical mind with a more analytical mind was interesting to me, and how that person would go about preserving their life. The truth is, there are a lot of things about him I am not quite sure about, and I think that is necessary. To some degree, when you’re writing that character – particularly from the point of view of a child – you have to be able to indulge the fertility of that uncertainty.
Q: Will you write more books?
A: I have trouble not writing. Whenever I finish a project I turn to my fiancée and say, “I’m going to take it easy for a while and relax and read and not work so hard,” and she says, “Oh, OK. I’ll believe it when I see it.”