> Skip to content

Article  •  16 June 2016


Silence is deadly

Liam Pieper’s The Toymaker asks people to speak up when it matters.

Bold, dark and compelling, Liam Pieper’s The Toymaker is a novel about privilege, fear and the great harm we can do when we are afraid of losing what we hold dear. Here Liam offers some insights into the places, people and events that helped him shape this unflinching examination of society…

The Toymaker is an idea that’s been rattling around in my subconscious since I was a child. Growing up, most of my friends were the grandchildren of Jewish émigrés from Eastern Europe, and I was very aware of the things their grandparents had suffered. I was always a little awed by the idea that these people could endure the evils of the Holocaust, and then just try to start again in a country that was, for the most part, indifferent to your suffering, that had watched it happen and hadn’t tried to stop it until way too late.

Arkady Kulakov, or at least the person he pretends to be, is a composite of several wise, gentle men I knew growing up. In Europe they had been going about living their lives, and suddenly the world went mad around them, and they lost everything. There was a certain sadness to them, and also a secrecy ­– they had seen things no human should, done things to survive they would never tell anyone.

I struggled for a long time with the ethics of writing about the Holocaust. The last thing I wanted was to be exploitative of past horrors, or to disrespect the memory of the millions of victims or the legacy of the survivors. It is a cheap shot from all sides of politics to compare the elements of your society that make you uncomfortable with the Nazis.

However, I’ve been watching, ever since the Tampa affair, my own country become increasingly hostile to the suffering of others, long past the point of indifference. As a novelist my intent is not to be political, but I do have a duty to be compassionate, and I worry that a government can get a boost in the polls by treating abused and scared refugees to state-sanctioned cruelty. A nation can be judged by how it treats those from outside who need its help. It’s worth remembering that the USA turned down Anne Frank’s request for asylum. It’s worth remembering how much we forget when it’s convenient to us.

This book was written in bits and pieces across four years, a large part of it in India, where President Modi was orchestrating one of the furthest-right governments India has ever seen. This is a guy who has used race riots for political gain, so the whole time I was there, all my friends had this creeping sense of dread about the direction of society. In towns not far from us, books were being burned. A novelist friend of mine was harassed by a far-right group until he quit writing altogether and went into hiding to save his family.

It only really started to take its final shape, though, when I was lucky enough to be invited by UNESCO to come and finish it in Europe as the inaugural creative resident of The City of Literature Prague. 

It’s impossible to over-emphasise how important this opportunity was to writing The Toymaker. I’d been researching the story my whole life, but it’s a whole different thing to be able to walk the streets I was writing about, to go to Auschwitz, to talk to survivors. While all this was going on, I was in Europe in the middle of the Syrian refugee crisis, and I was watching Europe grow more right-wing by the day. They were stopping international buses and checking everybody’s ID, questioning all the brown people. When I was in Krakow to research, a mob burned an effigy of a Jew in the middle of town. It was strange and surreal.

But Prague is where The Toymaker took its final shape, when all these disparate threads started to crystallise in my mind. I went to Bubny station, which is where all of Prague’s Jews boarded trains to be taken to their deaths, amongst, them, incidentally, Kafka’s family. It’s just an ordinary station, still functioning, with commuter trains rolling through it all day. It was the same on the day of the genocide. Everybody just went to work, and ignored what was happening.

There’s a monument there now, the only sign of what happened. The railway tracks the trains to Auschwitz left on have been rerouted and head up towards the sky, to heaven. It’s very striking. The idea is that people on the way to work will see this thing, this railway to the sky which looks fundamentally wrong, and ask what it is, and think about it – the way they didn’t back in 1942. If enough of those commuters had spoken up, things would have been very different. Silence is deadly.

This book is my answer to that monument. I see what is happening in the world right now, and it terrifies me that too few people are thinking about it. This is my attempt at getting people to think about where their society is going, not to be silent about it.

The Toymaker Liam Pieper

Bold, dark and compelling, The Toymaker is a novel about privilege, fear and the great harm we can do when we are afraid of losing what we hold dear.

Buy now
Buy now

More features

See all
Book clubs
The Toymaker book club notes

Liam Pieper’s The Toymaker: a gripping book club selection.

Locked Down: Real Reader Reviews

We wanted to know what young Kiwi readers thought about Jesse O's book Locked Down (hint: they loved it!). Read on to see their reviews.

Locked Down: A note from the author

When Jesse O wrote Locked Down (then titled Staying Home) back in 2011, she never imagined that almost a decade later, the events of her novel would prove spookily accurate . . .

The road trip that inspired Showtym Adventures 8!

Syd, the Muster Pony tells the story of the Wilson sisters' most epic adventure yet, and it's inspired by a real-life road trip Kelly and her sisters took in 2001! (warning: this article might induce a desperate longing to go adventuring around the country, read on at your own risk)

Suzi McAlpine on the inspiration behind Beyond Burnout

Find out the inspiration behind Beyond Burnout, as well as what you'll learn from reading it!

YA fiction we can't wait to read in 2021!

From contemporary rom-coms, to literary debuts, to the creepiest modern gothic fairytale you could imagine (seriously . . . it is AWESOME!), we've got some stellar YA lined up for you this year. Read on for recommendations for your TBR pile!

This will be hard

In How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Bill Gates outlines just some of the hurdles between humanity and a net-zero carbon world.

Beyond Hairy Maclary

Hairy Maclary and his friends are known and loved all over the world. But how familiar are you with Dame Lynley Dodd's other creations? There are plenty to discover, and just like Hairy Maclary, they all feature Lynely's uniquely exuberant artwork and gorgeously readable rhymes! Here are some suggestions to get you started.

A sneak peek at our 2021 kids books!

After an exhausting and unusual 2020, we’ve got plenty of reasons to be grateful for a new year, not least because of the stellar line up of children’s books we have coming your way over the next few months!Read on for a sneak peek at some of the best new children’s books we’re bringing to you in 2021.

Beautiful NZ Picture Books from 2020

Sometimes a story is best told alongside a beautiful picture, Here's a small selection of some of our favourite 2020 picture books from local creators. 

Sophie Gray's top tips for a cracker Christmas

If you’re planning to head to the shops for a last-minute Christmas here's what destitute gourmet wants you to think about! 

5 audiobooks for your summer road trip

If you’re new to the world of audiobooks and aren’t sure where to start or if you’re looking for the perfect book to listen to on your summer road trip adventures, we’ve got some great suggestions for you! 

Looking for more articles?

See all articles