Emuna Elon, House on endless waters (#BookReview)

Book coverI’ve said before that I’m surprised by how many takes there can be on World War II, and on the Holocaust, in particular – and once again I’m here with another such story, Emuna Elon’s House on endless waters. I hadn’t heard of Elon before but, according to Wikipedia, she’s an Israeli author, journalist, and women’s rights activist. Her first novel translated into English, If you awaken love, is about life on the West Bank, where she lived for many years.

House on endless waters, however, is historical fiction – or, at least, one of those novels which flips between the present and the past. It tells the story of successful Israeli author Yoel Blum who had been told by his late mother to never go to Amsterdam, from which they’d emigrated. However, the time comes when the middle-aged and internationally successful Blum is urged to Amsterdam by his literary agent to promote his latest Dutch-translated novel. While there, he and his wife visit the Jewish Historical Museum, and here, in a little looping video, he catches an image of his mother Sonia in Amsterdam during the war. Next to her is a man holding a little girl, his sister Nettie, but the baby she is carrying is not he! Who is this baby, and where was he?

Yoel returns to Israel, but, after obtaining the incomplete information his sister is able to provide (which is not divulged to the reader), he goes back to Amsterdam, alone, to research his past and write a novel about it. The result is one of those novels within a novel, as we follow Yoel’s journey alongside reading the story he is writing as he uncovers his family’s – and his – past. How much is “true” and how much Yoel imagines is not the point. We are carried along in the horrors of war-time Amsterdam, in stories of decent hardworking people’s disbelief that life could change so horribly so quickly, of Jewish collaborators, of the hidden children, of the most difficult choices people have to make. Elon conveys viscerally the shock felt by Jewish citizenry as one by one their rights are removed and as the foundations of their lives – something they thought immutable in such a place as Holland – crumble.

Much of this story has been told before. Anne Frank comes to mind of course, and many novels have dealt with the ways in which Jewish people were gradually ostracised and betrayed by their own society (the yellow stars, the loss of jobs, the resumption of homes, the rounding up, the transporting to concentration camps, and so on). What makes this one a little different – at least in my reading to date – is its exploration of the hidden child phenomenon, within a larger story of collaboration, betrayal, resistance and difficult choices.

The important thing, however, is less this difference than that it is a deeply absorbing read. Elon’s ability to manage her two story threads, and maintain our interest in both, speaks to a practised, skilled writer. There is no rigid chapter by chapter alternating of stories. Rather, as Yoel becomes increasingly invested in the life of his mother, Elon starts to blend the two stories, with Yoel sometimes feeling himself in both stories at once. As his sense of self becomes increasingly discombobulated, the line between past and present starts to blur:

Yoel would have liked to write about the architectural significance of Amsterdam, about the implication behind the labor invested in the rows of tiny reddish bricks, about the stylized cornices above the windows and the artistic embellishments that adorn every single building. But early the next morning, Sonia is walking along the street, and across the road the police are evicting a Jewish family from their beautiful art-nouveau-design house. The members of the banished family are trying to walk proudly to the truck that has come to take them away …

For Yoel, unlike the tourists he sees blithely enjoying the sun and culture of Amsterdam, “the past is still here” and it begins to overwhelm him.

Why a story-within-a-story?

This bring me to the question of why would Elon use the story-within-a-story-device? I can think of three reasons, the most obvious being that it draws the reader into the story, engaging us in its unravelling along with the protagonist. Secondly, in this case, it also mirrors how many children of the Holocaust generation didn’t know their parents’ stories – weren’t told them – and therefore had to work out those stories piece by piece. Finally, also in this case, it enables Elon to expose the personal development of her narrator, Yoel, who is initially revealed to be decent but emotionally remote. Very early in the novel, we learn this about him:

Perhaps the day will come when he’ll even train himself to live, a day when he will walk the earth like everyone else without being overcome by the thought that in fact it’s odd , even ridiculous to be a human being …

He is, says his wife, “scared of living”. This novel, then, is partly about identity. Yoel didn’t know his past but it’s clear that the traumas of that past had unconsciously impacted him, as we now know they do. Slowly, as he comes to understand who he is, he also starts to live, to be an engaged human being.

Jan Toorop, The Sea at Katwijk, 1887 (Public Domain)

There is much to this book, with Elon and her novelist Yoel drawing on art and music to reflect both Holland’s cultural achievements and its darker side. A motif running through the book is a stolen work of art – Jan Toorop’s The Sea at Katwijk – that had belonged to Sonia’s friends, Anouk and Martin, who are implicated in what happens. Martin suggests to Sonia that the painting is more about Toorop – “every painter evidently knows only how to depict himself” – than place. However, Sonia also sees herself in it: “there she is in black, there in red, there she is borne from wave to wave, moving in the infinite.” For Yoel, this sea “is a huge finite vessel containing infinite waters”. All this contributes to the novel’s message, one which Yoel finally realises Sonia was telling him:

Whatever was, was. Those waters have already flowed onward.

The trick is to know when to fight those waters, and when to let your “heart encounter the heart of the sea” and be at peace.

House on endless waters came to me out of the blue, but what a find. A Holocaust novel, it contains the horrors of that time but is also imbued with a generous, philosophical spirit that, without excusing atrocity, recognises the humanity of those who made selfish decisions and those who had to live with them. We need perspectives like this.

Emuna Elon
House on endless waters
Translated from Hebrew by Anthony Berris and Linda Yechiel
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2020 (Orig. ed. 2016)
309pp.
ISBN: 9781760877255

(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Bill curates: Imre Kertesz’s Fateless or Fatelessness

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

Sue reads some striking books and writes some (many!) striking reviews, of which this is one. I’m not sure I agree with her about Holocaust fiction, but I do appreciate that people who experienced the Nazi concentration camps, or their after-effects in the case of, say, Lily Brett, must write, just as we must read to honour their tribulations, and that a fictionalised account may be the way they choose to do this. Imre Kertész is another Nobel Prize winner I was unaware of. He died in 2016.
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My original post titled: “Imre Kertesz, Fateless or Fatelessness”

[WARNING: SPOILERS, of sorts]

Let’s get the first thing clear. I like holocaust literature – not because I enjoy the subject matter but because in it I find the most elemental, universal truths about humanity. Depending on the book, this literature contains various combinations of bravery and cowardice, cruelty and kindness, love and hate, self-sacrifice, self-preservation and betrayal, resilience and resignation, and  well, all those qualities that make up humanity and its converse, inhumanity. I have by no means read all that is out there but here are some that have moved me: Anne Frank’s The diary of a young girl (of course) and Anne Holm’s I am David, from my youth, and then books like Martin Amis’ Time’s arrow, Bernhard Schlink’s The reader, Marcus Zusak’s The book thief, and Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the river. There are gaps, though, in my reading, such as Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s ark (I did see the film), the works of Primo Levi, and Elie Wiesel’s Night. I have, however, just added Imre Kertèsz’s Fateless to my list of books read.

Kertèsz adds a new spin to the universal truths explored by these books – it’s what he describes (in my 1992 translation anyhow) as “stubbornness” which seems to me to mean “resilience” or a determination to survive, and even to have, if possible, little wins against the system.

Anyhow, first the plot. The novel takes place over the last year of the war and concerns Gyorgy Koves, a 14-year old Hungarian Jew, who, one day, is suddenly called off a bus, along with all other Jews on the bus and transported to Auschwitz, and then Buchenwald, Zeitz and back to Buchenwald, before returning home at war’s end. It chronicles his experiences, his thinking, and the impact on him of his experience. He begins as the archetypal naive narrator…but by the end, though his tone has changed little, he is no longer naive. This is rather beautifully achieved as we see his youthful application of logic being changed into something more cynical and survival focused.

Gyorgy speaks with a strange sense of detachment borne, to start with, of an apparent unawareness of what exactly washappening to him and a disbelief that anything untoward would happen. And so, in the beginning, as events unfold he describes them as “natural” because of course, when they got to Auschwitz, it was sensible to inspect each person to see who was physically fit and capable of working. He didn’t know then what would happen to those not found physically fit. The horror gradually builds as reality sets in and he goes about making it through each day – through his share of beatings, the reduced food rations, and all the other deprivations that make up concentration camp life. In the first part of the book he uses the term “naturally” to mean some sort of normal logic but by the end it comes to mean, as he explains to a journalist who asks him why he keeps using the word for things that aren’t natural, that these things were natural in a concentration camp.

Early on in his captivity he says that they approached their life (and work) “with the best of intentions” but they soon discover that these “best of intentions” do not bring about any kindness from their overseers, and so his attitude to getting on, to surviving starts to change. As he starts to physically weaken, become emaciated and develop infections, he observes that “my body was still there. I was thoroughly familiar with it, only somehow I myself no longer lived inside it”. Always dispassionate, always matter-of-fact, while describing the most heart-rending things.

Towards the end, he is placed in a hospital ward and there he is treated better and, even, with a certain amount of kindness. This in its way is as shocking to him as the cruel beatings he experienced at Zeitz. He can see no logic, “no reason for its being, nothing rational or familiar”. He can only understand kindness in terms of the giver receiving “some pleasure” from it or having some “personal need” satisfied. Never is there any sense that altruism might come into play. His view of “justice” is based very much on survival. He says, when he is spared, “everything happened according to the rules of justice … I was able to accept a situation more easily when it concerned someone else’s bad luck rather than my own … This was the lesson I learned”.

And so, in the end he returns home, and finds it hard to explain to people just what happened and how he now views life. He describes getting through his time as “taking one step after another”, focusing just on the moment. He implies that if he had known his fate he would have focused on time passing – a far more soul-destroying activity than concentrating on getting through each day “step by step”. This brings us to the fate/fateless bit. He says at the end that:

if there is a fate, there is no freedom … if, on the other hand, there is freedom, then there is no fate. That is … that is, we ourselves are fate.

I find this a little hard to grasp but he seems to be saying that we are free to make our own choices, even in a concentration camp – we are not fated but make our own fate. He was and is not prepared to accept any other approach to life. But life will not be easy:

I am here, and I know full well that I have to accept the prize of being allowed to live … I have to continue my uncontinuable life … There is no impossibility that cannot be overcome (survived?).

And yet, at the very end of the book, he says “and even back there [in the concentration camp], in the shadow of the chimneys, there was something resembling happiness”. Wow! This is an astonishing book – it charts horrors with a calmness that is quite shocking, and it is particularly shocking not because Gyorgy is unfeeling but because he can’t quite grasp what is happening to him. This is the fundamental irony of the book, and the fundamental truth of a naive narrator: we the reader know exactly how it is even as Gyorgy tries to make sense of it using logic and reason. I must read this book again – and preferably the newer more highly regarded 2004 translation by Tom Wilkinson.

Imre Kertész
Fateless
Translated by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson
Northwestern University Press, 1992 (orig. ed 1975, in Hungarian)
191 pp.
ISBN: 9780810110496

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I looked in my bookshelves when Bill sent through this Bill Curates post, and discovered that the edition I own is the later Tom Wilkinson one. I must have bought it with the intention of reading it, but I haven’t yet. Oh, the dreams of an everyday reader!

Bill will, I hope, explain his introductory comment regarding Holocaust fiction. We’d love to know what you think – and/or read.

WG Sebald, Austerlitz (#BookReview)

WG Sebald, AusterlitzFor the first time in my reading group’s 30-year history, we read a book recommended by a fictional character. It happened like this: after reading and discussing Rabih Alameddine’s An unnecessary woman (my review) in January, we thought it would be interesting if we all nominated which book mentioned by the “unnecessary woman”, Aaliya Saleh, that we’d most like to read. The book that got the most votes was Austerlitz. I was thrilled, because I bought my copy back in 2010 to read with one of my online reading groups, but never did, and because I had already read and been bowled over by his The emigrants.

But now where to start? A bit left field I think – which is probably not inappropriate given Sebald’s approach to literature. The “left field” happens to be one of my (few) never-forgotten book quotes. It’s from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and is Sethe talking about “the day’s serious work of beating back the past.” Sethe is, as most of you probably know, an American ex-slave who is living with the trauma of her past life. Austerlitz, in Sebald’s book, is a man who, as a four-year-old, had been sent from Prague to England on a Kindertransporte in 1939, never to see his parents again. Indeed, he suppresses all memory of his past life – realising later

how little practice I had in using my memory, and conversely how hard I must always have tried to recollect as little as possible, avoiding everything which related to my unknown past.

This realisation comes some 50 years later, in the early 1990s, when, one day, having become “increasingly morbid and intractable” after the death of his only true friend, he is in the Ladies Waiting Room of the Liverpool Street Station – and a memory comes back of his arrival in England. At this point, his “self-censorship”, his “constant suppression of … memories” brings about a nervous breakdown. Upon his recovery, he begins researching his past life, resulting in trips to Prague to look for his mother, and to Paris to do the same for his father. Much of this is couched in discussions of architecture – because Austerlitz is an architectural historian – forcing us to consider the role architecture plays in human history and psychology. It’s compelling, but more than that, mesmerising …

However, this book has been written about with great insight and sensitivity by reviewers at, for example, the New York Times and The Guardian, so I’m going to do something a little different, and respond to that fictional woman, Aaliya, who recommended the book to my group!

“His style, drawn-out and elongated sentences that wrap around the page and their reader …”

And I will start with the seemingly mundane, the style, because it is this that confronts us most strongly with we start the book. If you’ve never read Sebald before it could be a shock. There are almost no paragraphs – well you could say there are 5 including the beginning of the book – which means there are no real chapters. The story just continues on and on, often through very long sentences containing multiple clauses and lists. We do have a narrator, the person to whom Austerlitz is telling his story and who relates it on to us.

Strangely though, I found the writing page-turning. There is something mesmerising about the almost flat, rather melancholic, tone suffusing the narration, that you want to keep reading. At least I did – and so did most of my reading group once they’d “got into it”. The style, in other words, wraps around you.

There are motifs and images which recur through the novel, making the whole cohere, creating the tone and developing the themes. There are shadows, there’s darkness more than light, and colours are muted, mostly grey. There are star-shapes, railway stations and other monumental buildings. There are references to ghosts. Places are more often empty or deserted, than heavily populated. And there’s the mysterious operation of time and memory. All these support the narrative’s mesmerising quality.

The book also includes black-and-white photographs, encouraging us to see it as non-fiction but no, this is fiction. Austerlitz is a made-up character – but, says The New Yorker, Sebald sometimes called his work “documentary fiction”. In other words, this is a very different sort of read.

“All I am is lonely. Before I go to bed, I must put away Sebald …

… both The Emigrants and Austerlitz. I can’t read him now, not in this state. He’s much too honest. I will read something else.” 

Our “unnecessary woman”, Aaliya, who lives in Beirut, has experienced war herself, been affected by its ravages. I won’t say more here, because I think what I have said about the story and it’s tone already makes clear why she feels this. Sebald is not a writer to be read at times of distress or melancholy, but his insights into what we call “the human condition” are … well, let me put it this way: this is not a book you explain, really, but one you feel. What you feel is something that affects the way you think about human history, about where we’ve been and where, unfortunately, it looks like we’re going.

“I am proud that I finished the Austerlitz project. I consider it one of the best Holocaust novels.”

Aaliya goes on to say that “I find that when a subject has been heavily tilled, particularly something as horrifying as the Holocaust, anything new should force me to look with fresh eyes, to experience previously unexperienced feelings, to explore the hitherto unexplored.” And this is why Austerlitz is powerful. Austerlitz was a young boy in a little Welsh town while the war was on so he did not experience the Holocaust directly. But, his experience of being displaced comes back to haunt him later. So this is not about a person who directly experienced the Holocaust, nor is it, though, about the second generation. It is about someone who lived at the time, but had not experienced it first-hand because his parents, who did, had removed him. He is in a sort of limbo generation – and “limbo” is probably a good description for how he feels through much of the novel.

He writes, describing his experience of another mental/physical collapse:

It was obviously of little use that I had discovered the source of my distress and, looking back over all the past years, could now see myself with the utmost clarity as that child suddenly cast out of his familiar surroundings: reason was powerless against the sense of rejection and annihilation which I had always suppressed and was now breaking through the walls of its confinement.

This statement struck me powerfully, because not only does it reflect another experience of the Holocaust – another way of looking at its impact – but it articulates the experience of our stolen generations, and, beyond that, of any children removed, for good or bad reasons, from their homes. “Reason was powerless against the sense of rejection and annihilation”. What more is there to say?

There is so much to talk about this book, so much I haven’t touched upon, but I’m going to finish with a brief reference to his discussion of time, the past and memory which underpins the novel. Here is Austerlitz late in the novel:

It seems to me then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last, just as when we have accepted an invitation we duly arrive in a certain house at a given time. And might it not also be, continued Austerlitz, that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak?

I love this organic way of looking at time, this suggestion of how we might experience, approach or understand the events, particularly traumas, that happen to us.

Our unnecessary woman, Aaliyah, calls Austerlitz a great Holocaust novel, but I’d go one step further and simply say it is a great novel. Full stop.

WG Sebald
Austerlitz
(Trans. by Anthea Bell)
London: Penguin, 2002
415pp.
ISBN: 9780140297997

Susan Varga, Heddy and me (Review)

Susan Varga, Heddy and me Book cover

Penguin edition

Susan Varga’s biography-cum-memoir, Heddy and me, was first published back in 1994, so why am I reading it now? By a rather circuitous route, as it happens. Lesley Lebkowicz, whose The Petrov poems I’ve reviewed, read my post on Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister, sister, and suggested to Susan Varga that she might like to send me her book to review. Varga apparently liked the idea and consequently I received an email from her personal assistant offering it to me. I had heard of it, and am interested in the subject matter, so I said yes. That was, embarrassingly, over four months ago, for which I apologise, but eventually its time came and here, finally, is my review.

I’ll start with the judges’ comment when they chose the book to win the 1994 Christina Stead Award for Biography, Autobiography or Memoir*. They described it as “the front rank of autobiographical writing in this country”. That’s a big call but, having read it, I agree, because it is an engrossing book which intelligently negotiates two usually opposing forms, biography and autobiography/memoir. In it, Varga tells the story of her Hungarian Jewish mother Heddy – her life in Hungary, her experience of World War 2, and her subsequent emigration with her extended family to Australia. But, in telling this story, Varga, as the title conveys, also tells her own. She was born, mid-war, in 1943 and was just 5 when the family migrated. Hers was a complicated growing up in which she struggled to find self. She finally realised, late in her research, that she straddles two generations: the first (those who migrated) and the second (the children of those migrants).

Now, I can see why Lebkowicz thought I might be interested in this book, because both books involve a daughter not only telling the Holocaust-survival-and-migration story of a mother, but also working through her understanding of and relationship with that mother. Like Blay after her, Varga captured much of her mother’s story via tape recorder:

… the room itself is imposing, with its long oak table and chairs covered in embossed velvet. Imposing but not unfriendly, which is very much Mother’s style.

I switch on the tape-recorder. She talks, I listen. She [unlike Blay’s mother] doesn’t need much prompting; she’s telling me her life story, which she knows will be raw material for a book. In the past when people have said to her, ‘Heddy, you should tell your life story,’ she has said, ‘I’m waiting for Susan.’

I’ve told her it won’t be her life story, not properly. It will be filtered through my reactions and thoughts, my second generation eyes.

And Varga’s eyes are complicated, sometimes testy ones, as she strives to comprehend her strong-willed mother. So, like Blay’s book, Heddy and me is an amalgam of biography and autobiography, thereby neatly sidestepping David Marr’s injunction for biographers to get out of their story! Like Blay’s book, too, Heddy and me is a story of survival – of a peculiar combination of luck, resourcefulness and judgment – and it’s a story of the lasting impacts of the war. For both families, one of those impacts is an ongoing sense of fear:

… the fear of impermanence, the readiness to flee, takes the form, among others, of a deep conservatism running through the older generation, as if any change at all could result in their lives being uprooted again. They are over-protective, still prone to buy their children a diamond, something portable, just in case.

And we children feel a pervasive fear that we do not know how to express. Impermanence and insecurity lurk in the shadows behind this all-Australian red-brick security.

I found this analysis, this explanation of conservatism, enlightening – and helpful.

However, despite similarities with Blay’s book, Varga’s is different. For a start there are the obvious departures. Varga’s family is Hungarian to Blay’s Polish one, and Varga’s mother was married with a young child when the war started while Blay’s mother was still a teenager. Moreover, Varga’s mother managed to avoid, through various subterfuges, being sent to a concentration camp. She didn’t suffer the ghetto and concentration camp terrors and depredations of Blay’s mother, but Heddy and her colourful mother Kató, whose story is also told here, did suffer, including being raped multiple times by their Russian liberators. There are deeper differences too, speaking to the different psychologies of the two families, their individual wartime experiences, and how these subsequently played out in their post-war lives. And there’s the structure. Varga interweaves her own story and her reactions to her mother’s story within the one narrative flow, while Blay carefully differentiates her voice from her mother’s and aunt’s.

A particularly fascinating part of Varga’s book is the picture she paints of Hungarian society before, during and after the war. I learnt a lot, for example, about Budapest – its vibrant pre-war culture and life, albeit a life that, for its Jewish inhabitants, had its paradoxes. They lived, writes Varga, an outwardly normal life, “clinging to continuity while awaiting upheaval”. Varga chronicles the trajectory of anti-Semitism, from pre-war to the out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire situation in which Hungary’s Jews found themselves post-war, when Nazism was replaced by Communism. Indeed, having survived the war, Heddy, Kató and family were prepared to stay in Budapest until it became clear to Heddy “that the noose was tightening again, like Hitler, except then it was against the Jews, now against everyone.” So, Heddy, ever attuned it seems to the political nuances around her, worked on her family until they agreed to move to “the New World”. Later, as part of research for her book, Varga returns to Hungary with her mother, and becomes aware of the increasing (or, really, continuing) anti-Semitism:

As I begin to grasp the subtleties of political life in the post-Communist world, I find it awful that the Jews should once again need friends and protectors, I think of 1943, when Hungary’s Jews still thought themselves safe because Kállay, or some other prominent politician, was their friend.

Once again, I am astonished, though I suppose by now I shouldn’t be, at how deeply anti-Semitism seems to run, particularly in Europe.

And here, I’m going to insert some personal connections with Varga’s story. I mentioned in my review of Sister, sister that I’d spent some time in my Sydney youth with Jewish people – eastern European Jews – who were business friends of my father’s. Blay’s and now Varga’s books consequently ring true for me, Varga’s particularly, because her parents did exactly what many of these people did – they set up business in the rag trade, and then handbags. I still have some handbags to prove it! But, my connections with Varga are more than this, because I went to the same high school she did, albeit a decade later. Unfortunately, Varga’s experience was not as positive as mine, partly due to her increasing sense of disconnection with her family and partly to the fact that by my time in the mid-to-late 1960s society was becoming less rigid (even in strict government girls’ schools). It was at that school that my understanding of civil rights – particularly, then, relating to racism and anti-Semitism – was honed. This is rather ironic given Varga found it “a school of endless strictures and platitudes”.

Anyhow, enough about me, and back to the book. Heddy and me was, I suspect, groundbreaking when it was first published, not so much for its portrayal of personal experience of the Holocaust, because such stories started appearing soon after the war, but for Varga’s intensely personal exploration of women’s experience and identity across three generations, before, during and after the war. Since then, similar stories have been written – Blay’s, for example, and another I’ve reviewed, Halina Rubin’s Journeys with my mother. However, these later books don’t minimise the power of Heddy and me, which not only illuminates the personal and familial costs of the Holocaust, but also provides an historical perspective on that mysterious thing we call human behaviour. This book deserves a continued life.

AWW Logo 2016Susan Varga
Heddy and me
Abbotsford: Bruce Sims Books, 2000 (2nd ed.; Orig. ed. Penguin, 1994)
304pp.
ISBN: 9780957780033

(Source: Susan Varga)

* Unfortunately FAW’s awards website only goes back to 1999. This comment is on the front cover of my edition, and is credited to “Christina Stead Award”.

Anna Rosner Blay, Sister, sister (Review)

BlaySisterHaleSome of the most vivid memories of my Sydney-based late teens and early twenties relate to spending time with Jewish people, business friends of my father. We went to parties in their homes, to weddings and bar mitzvahs. These were always happy, family-oriented occasions. I had crushes on the sons. I knew that most of these people had come to Australia after the war, had suffered during the war, many in concentration camps, but I knew little more than that. The war was back then and this was now. I have no idea what those sons knew or thought about their parents’ pasts. Anna Rosner Blay’s biography-cum-family-memoir, Sister, sister, has reminded me of those days and made me wonder, yet again, about the lives whose paths I so airily crossed.

Around that time, I also started reading “Holocaust literature”. I’ve read memoirs about surviving the war, including most recently Halina Rubin’s Journeys with my mother (my review), and novels about survival, such as Imre Kertèsz’s Fateless (my review), but Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister, sister adds new ground to my reading. Not only is it about two sisters, Polish Jews, who survived the war from the early restrictions, through ghetto, concentration camps, death marches and factories, to their eventual emigration to Australia, but it also exposes the longterm effects of Holocaust experiences, particularly on the next generation. It’s a moving book.

Three voices

Blay presents the story in three voices: those of her aunt Janka and mother Hela, and her own. Janka and Hela’s voices are clearly identified interview-style, while her voice is conveyed via italics without her name being appended. An interesting decision, but it works. Blay captured the sisters’ stories via tape-recorder and notebook, and then “transcribed and rearranged” them, primarily, I’m assuming, to get them into chronological order, given the stories came out in fits and starts, late in the sisters’ lives. Towards the end of the book Blay writes:

My mother’s accounts are often disjointed, abbreviated, shreds that veer away from the painful reality. But at other times they are laid out before me, complete and pulsating with life, precious jewels that I must handle very carefully.

She has, indeed, handled them (and her aunt’s) memories very carefully to produce a story that is horrifying, horrifying as a personal story, but also because it is clearly representative of a more universal experience of the millions of Jews who suffered under the Nazi regime, which just compounds the horror.

I’ll start with the universal. A survival story, Sister, sister describes the brutality, degradation and humiliation which the Germans visited upon the Jews during the war. You’ve heard the stories before, but, oh dear, to read yet again of the utter inhumanity is appalling. I couldn’t possibly quote the most brutal, so here’s a minor example. Both women ended up separately at Auschwitz. Both were stripped, shaved, sent into showers (that were – what a relief – real showers) – and then tossed random clothing and mismatched shoes. Hela received two left clogs causing blisters, while Janka’s pair comprised “one with a high heel and the other flat. I therefore walked with a limp.”

Surviving this war was, Janka tells, “a macabre game of chance”:

We hardly ever knew what would turn out to be good for us and what should be avoided, possibly by subterfuge. Sometimes being led to a train could mean being sent to a small camp with a factory, and easy work; other times it could mean being sent to death. Sometimes you could save your life just by lingering, which was dangerous in itself. There was no way of knowing how to survive …

And this brings me to the personal, because while the sisters’ experiences are universal, they are also deeply personal. One of the things that Blay does very well is capture Janka and Hela’s individual personalities. Janka tends to be more expansive, telling more stories in more detail. She is also “braver”. She lingers (drawing her sister or friends back) when she thinks to go forward means death; she lies about her skills when she thinks that will get her a better “job” and/or keep her with people she knows; she negotiates black market deals (to swap her mismatched shoes, for example); and so on. She identifies these, and other situations she survives, as “miracles”. The younger Hela – just 18 years old when the war ends – is, by her own admission, less brave, more fearful. She relies on her sister and later, a friend, to keep herself together when times get tough. She’s lucky to end up, towards the end of the war, as a Schindlerjuden, through her musician husband. But this is not to say she’s a wuss. She’s a hard worker, a skilled seamstress, and she survived. You had to be strong as well as lucky to survive. Janka, ten years Hela’s senior, says:

When we were girls Hela was like a flower that had opened too early, its fragile petals still crumpled and sheltered from the ways of the world. But she also had the strength to persist in harsh times, and to continue to flourish even in a storm.

Through directly presenting the sisters’ personal voices, Blay brings them alive as individuals in addition to representing them as survivors in general.

But, there’s a third prong to this story, the one that apparently forms the crux of Magda Szubanski’s recent memoir Reckoning. I’m talking the impact on the next generation. This is where Anna’s voice comes in. Again Blay handles this well, with Anna’s italicised reflections appearing intermittently in response to comments by one or other sister. Her voice is mostly gentle, without histrionics, but we are left in no doubt as to the longterm impact of the experience on the sisters and the way this has transmitted to the next generation. There are losses galore – losses of people and connections, for a start. Anna describes visiting a school friend who shows some of her “treasures” – a war medal, photos, some family jewellery. Anna writes:

She asks if I like the treasures; I nod, unable to speak. The tightness grows to a hollowness, an empty feeling that can’t be filled. The threads that link Linda to her past are strong, glowing. They are made manifest by the treasures before me, and I sense that it is not the objects themselves that have so taken my breath away. It is not their beauty or value that tugs at me, but the world of significant connections that surrounds them.

So, not only are there no grandparents, but there no objects to provide a link, a sense of history. Other losses are deeper, more psychological. Hela’s fear of hunger, of death, of fear itself, are also transmitted, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so, to her daughter:

My mother is always anxious at mealtimes. She coaxes me to eat more and checks how much I am putting in my mouth.

AND

I never trust strangers.

AND

My earliest nightmare is of a narrow cobblestoned lane. Fences on both sides crowd me in. As I walk along, alone, I realise I am being followed. An old man comes behind me with a sack, and grabs me …

Anna’s comments are not chronological, because they respond more organically to the sisters’ experiences, but together they convey how experiences – even when the telling of them has been withheld until late in life – carry through to the next generation. Anna’s stories, though, never overwhelm her aunt’s and mother’s because they are the main game. Anna sums it up best late in the book:

the enormity of the injustice and of the horror defies expression … [yet] … The power of the human spirit to survive, despite everything, is limitless.

Sister, sister was shortlisted for the Age Book of the Year Award and the New South Wales Premier’s Award in 1998. It’s not hard to see why.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also read and admired this book.

awwchallenge2016Anna Rosner Blay
Sister, sister
Alexandria: Hale & Iremonger, 1998
264pp.
ISBN: 9780868066479

(Review copy courtesy the author)

Elliot Perlman, The street sweeper (Review)

Elliot Perlman‘s latest novel, The street sweeper, is a complex book with a pretty simple message. It’s complex because of its multiple interconnecting storylines that move back and forth between World War II, the American Civil Rights era, and contemporary times. It has multiple themes, about which I’ll write further, but the underlying message is simply this: history is important. Related to this is the idea that all things are connected. Let me explain …

The original characters in the novel, those from whom the connections flow, are two lawyers, the Jewish Jake Zignelik and African-American William McCay. Both were active in civil rights in the 1960s. However, as the novel starts, Jake has been dead for some time, and William is in his 80s. The baton, in a way, has been passed to their sons, Charlie and Adam who are historians at Columbia University. It is around 2008, and both men have lost their way somewhat. Charlie is a successful academic, so successful that his administrative duties are not only tearing him away from his main love, research, but also from the important relationships in his life, those with his father, wife and teenage daughter. Adam’s problem is different. His career has stalled. He hasn’t published anything for so long that he will not get tenure – and Charlie, who has been his mentor, but who has let that relationship slide too, can’t help. Adam, believing it’s the honourable thing to do, breaks up with his long-standing girlfriend, Diana, on the basis that he’s unable to be the husband and father that he believes she wants.

None of these characters, though, is the street sweeper of the title, because there is another significant character, the one who opens the novel. This is Lamont Williams, an African-American who has just started work as a janitor at a cancer hospital in a pilot program for ex-convicts. He, like Adam, is close to 40 years old. Lamont, we soon learn, is a good man to whom bad things happen, just like the hero in Perlman’s first novel, Three dollars. He is, in fact, innocent of the crime that put him in jail but his colour and poverty meant he didn’t have a chance – just like the Jews in war-time Europe.

The novel focus primarily on these two men – Adam and Lamont – as they struggle to get their lives on track. Lamont’s story sees him getting to know hospital patient and Holocaust survivor Henryk Mandelbrot who tells Lamont over a period of nearly 6 months of his experience under Nazism, particularly in Auschwitz. Mandelbrot wants his story known, and insists that Lamont learns and remembers it. Meanwhile, Adam, initially reluctantly, looks into a research project suggested by Charlie’s father William, one that sees him also learning about the horrors of the Holocaust. As the novel progresses, and more characters – from the past and present – are introduced, the connections and links between people multiply, rather like a Dickensian novel. There is, though, a point to these connections. Early in the novel, Perlman writes that

you never know the connections between things, people, places, ideas. But there are connections.

And these connections, whether we know it or not, can direct the trajectory of our lives – as they do for the characters in The street sweeper. There is also a central ideological connection in the book, and this is that there are “parallels between the situation of blacks in the United States and the Jews in Germany”.

A major theme of the novel – one of Perlman’s pet themes in fact – is that of moral responsibility, of what makes a “good” person. As so often happens, those who have the least but, paradoxically, the most to lose, are quickest to take the moral path. Early in the novel, and four days into his 6 months probation, Lamont is accosted by Mandelbrot who asks a favour. This favour is something Lamont is not supposed to do – it’s not his job – but, seeing the old man’s distress, he risks losing his job to do the right, the moral, thing. Late in the novel, a professional woman who has nothing to lose but a bit of her time is asked to do a moral thing. She experiences a jolt when, after a passage of time, she realises that she’d been prevaricating about an issue of justice. Not all characters though come to this realisation regarding their moral duty.

I said in my opening paragraph that the underlying message of the novel is that history matters. This is conveyed throughout the book by discussions about history and the role of historians, by showing historians going about their business, by reference to the “long causal chain” and to the importance of remembering, and most of all, by the refrain, “tell everyone what happened here”. You won’t be surprised to know that I loved the fact that Perlman explicitly and implicitly explores the theory and practice of history here, but it deserves a post of its own so watch this space … I’ll simply say now that Perlman explains in his author’s note which characters are based on “real” historical figures, and he provides an extensive list of the sources he used.

The question I always ask when reading historical fiction is why has the author decided to tell this story from the past? In Perlman’s case the answers are obvious. First it’s the one made explicitly in the novel, and that is to “tell everyone what happened here”. Then there’s the more implicit one to do with why we need to know what happened, and that is to ensure that the horrors visited upon the Jews in the Holocaust and the African-Americans in the US don’t happen again. And finally it’s to remind us of our basic moral responsibility which is, as William says to his son, to “Do what’s right here, Charlie”.

I could pick some holes in the novel. It’s big and a little baggy around the edges. It can verge on didacticism at times. And, to make the necessary connections, Perlman relies a lot on coincidence, which could seem contrived if you haven’t bought into the story. But, here’s the thing. I have read many good, even excellent, books this year. However, The street sweeper, like Rohinton Mistry‘s A fine balance and Margaret Atwood‘s The handmaid’s tale, is one that will stay with me long after I’ve forgotten the name of the characters, long, even, after I’ve forgotten how the plot falls out. And that, for me, is the best sort of read.

Lisa of ANZLitLovers also liked this novel.

Elliot Perlman
The street sweeper
Kindle edition
Random House, 2011
ASIN: B005LV7O4S

Delicious descriptions from Down Under: Arnold Zable on survival and stories

Arnold Zable is not, I believe, very well-known even in Australia, but I think he is a beautiful writer. He has a lovely way with words but, more importantly I think, his writing is warm and generous. I’ve read two of his novels – Cafe Scheherazade and Sea of many returns – and enjoyed them both. Zable was born in 1947 in New Zealand to Polish-Jewish refugees, a fact which clearly has driven his interest in human rights in general, and the migrant experience in particular. He has a new book out – Violin lessons – and so I thought now would be a good time to introduce him.

Cafe Scheherazade (2001), which is based on the stories told by Jewish refugees in the real Cafe Scheherazade in Melbourne, is, as much as anything, about survival – and, as is obvious from the title, about the importance of stories to this survival.

… but they persist with their opinions as if to argue is to know they are alive. They continue to tell their tales, as if to talk is to know they have survived.

and …

I feel the limits of my craft, the limits of what words can convey.

and …

panic … that … I would perish; and my tales would perish with me.

and, reflecting the practice of many survivors of the Holocaust (and other trauma) …

This is when the stories began to be suppressed … an urgent need to forget and to rebuild their aborted lives.

It’s a beautiful book … and well-worth reading if you ever get the chance.

PS If you Google Cafe Scheherazade Melbourne you’ll find some images (including those from a play that was adapted from the book) but I couldn’t find any that were free for me to use here.

Herz Bergner, Between sky and sea

Hans Bergner, Between sea and sky

Book cover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

Do you read introductions to novels? And, if you do, do you read them before or after you read the novel itself? I read them, but always afterwards because I like to come to  novels as objectively as I can. And so, this is what I did with Herz Bergner’s  Between sky and sea which won the Australian Literature Society’s Gold Medal for Book of the Year in 1948. I’d never heard of it. (Well, I wasn’t around then, but still …!) However, this year Text Publishing has republished it, which is a pretty savvy decision because, as Arnold Zable suggests in the introduction, it has some resonances for contemporary Australia – but more on that anon. Zable also tells us that while Bergner, a Polish Jew who emigrated to Australia in 1938, wrote the book in Yiddish, it was first published in English, having been translated by another Australian Jewish novelist, Judah Waten.

The novel has a straightforward plot. It tells the story of a group of Jewish refugees from the Nazi invasion of Poland who are passengers on an old Greek freighter bound for Australia where they hope for a new life. (Australians, at least, will see the contemporary resonances now. Think SIEV X, for example). There is, though, an older resonance which Bergner presumably knew – that of the MS St Louis which tried to find a home for Jewish refugees in 1939 after they were turned away from Cuba (and which later inspired the book Voyage of the damned, so titled because, as many of you know I’m sure, they continued to be turned away as they went from port to port). These resonances and more are all referred to in the Introduction. Knowing readers will pick many of them up, but isn’t that the fun of reading? To pick them up yourself? So, read the book, I say, and then the rather fine Introduction.

Anyhow, back to the book. As I was reading it, I couldn’t help also thinking of that allegorical boat trip, the Ship of Fools. This is not that allegory – they are not fools, and the boat does have a captain, but as I read the novel I felt that awful sense of a world out of control that the allegory represents.

If this book were a film, it would be described as having an ensemble cast, because it has no identifiable heroes or heroines, no real anti-heroes either. Rather, it has a bunch of people who are thrown together by circumstance but who have little in common other than that they are Jewish refugees. Their backgrounds are diverse and they vary in their practice of Judaism (if they practise it at all). They include Nathan and Ida (who lost their respective spouses and children while escaping the invasion), the know-it-all Fabyash and his family, the flirty but mostly kind-hearted Bronya and her stolid overweight husband Marcus, Mrs Hudess and her two daughters (whose only remaining possession is one doll), and several others. As you might expect with such a set up, the novel explores the increasing tensions – the arguments, the pettinesses alongside the kindnesses – that occur as supplies of food and water dwindle and people get sick, while the journey goes on and on without an end in sight:

They were ashamed to lift their heads, to look each other in the face, and for two reasons. Because Fabyash had sunk so low that he had stolen food from a child, and because Mrs Hudess, who was regarded as such a refined person, had burst forth with the language of the coarsest market vendor. To what depths suffering can bring a person.

The strength of the novel is, in fact, its characterisation. Despite its almost non-existent plot (though there is a climax that I won’t give away), the novel maintains our interest because its characters are real in the way they relate to each other and their circumstances.We know these people, we are these people. In this regard it is a little different from those Holocaust novels – many of which also deal with “ordinary” people – that work on a larger-than-life heroism-betrayal scale.

Towards the end of his introduction, Zable quotes Waten regarding the translation. Waten apparently translated it with Bergner by his side, and says that Bergner was “very odd because he wanted every word translated, and if the number of words came out fewer in English he wasn’t very happy. He never really mastered the English language”. This makes a bit of sense because there are times when the novel feels a little – well – wordy. This never becomes a big problem, however, because Bergner’s imagery (mostly simile and analogy) tends to be fresh and is often two-edged:

A soft haze shimmered in the summer air, caressing their faces like spider webs. [on Nathan and Ida’s escape from Warsaw]

and

For a moment the moon shone through, glittering like a lance, and then it was quickly hidden again.

and

… at midday when the sun was ripe and full like a great golden pear that hung heavily from the centre of the sky.

I enjoy writing like this that contains layers of meaning that make you think a little before you move on. The language is not particularly complex, but Bergner has a habit of inserting a word or phrase that undercuts your expectation and keeps you reading.

The themes are both particular and universal – particular because they specifically depict the anti-Semitism that was rife during World War 2 (to the extent that even the crew on the boat treat the passengers as less than human), and universal because they explore the various ways humans behave under stress. The overriding theme – the biggie, in fact – is the way we continue to turn away other. The irony is that even when we are the other – such as the Jews on this boat – we find otherness amongst ourselves to turn away (until a bigger calamity forces us to reconnect). Will we ever change? I fear not. In fact, that’s what makes the universal, universal, isn’t it?

It is encouraging to see publishers like Sydney University Press and Text Publishing – not to mention of course Penguin –  reissuing long out-of-print Australian classics. I hope it pays off, not only because I like to see forgotten Australian classics brought to life again but because, as in this book, the messages conveyed by these classics can be as valid today as they were when they were first written.

Herz Bergner (trans. by Judah Waten)
Between sky and sea
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2010 (first ed. 1946)
215pp.
ISBN: 9781921656316

(Review copy supplied by Text Publishing)

Markus Zusak, The book thief

In one moment, there was great kindness and great cruelty, and I saw it as the perfect story of how humans are. (Zusak on the Random House website).

Zusak could hardly have chosen, for The book thief, a better setting to explore the best and worst of humanity than Germany during the Holocaust. The book reminds me a little of Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the river which also deals with a small German town during the war and the hiding of Jews, though Hegi’s book has a much wider canvas, covering a few decades.

The novel, which is narrated by Death, tells the story of a young girl Liesel (the book thief) who is left with a foster family in a small German town in the lead up to and during World War II. Liesel is treated well by her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, and makes friends with people in the neighbourhood including Rudy Steiner, a boy her own age. Not long into the novel, the Hubermann household is also joined by Max, a 24 year old Jewish man whom they hide. From here we follow the family and the neighbourhood as they live through the war. The characters – and there are many of them – are well drawn.

It’s a clever, memorable book. The use of Death as a narrator and its structure, which seems both old world (the chapter titles ‘featuring….’) and post-modern (the inclusion of the illustrated stories, the little bold-type assertions like ‘A small threat from Viktor Chemmel to Rudy Steiner’, ‘He survived like this’), give it a fresh tone which impel the reader on. This tone has a veneer of whimsy while at the same time being deadly serious.

There is a bit of foreshadowing but it’s handled well. It tells us our narrator is omnipotent and warns us that bad things are going to happen (and we know they will anyhow). I don’t usually mind foreshadowing – and agree with Death who says:

Of course, I’m being rude. I’m spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it. I have given you two events in advance, because I don’t have much interest in building mystery. Mystery bores me. It chores me.

The star of the book for me is its language. It’s superficially simplistic but is really quite sophisticated. There are some wonderful images – ‘pimples were gathered in peer groups on his face’; ‘they were going to Dachau to concentrate’; ‘rumour of sunshine’; ‘the sky began to charcoal towards light’ – but these are not overdone.

Zusak effectively handles the fact that the characters are German and would be speaking German through the occasional use of German words and phrases. And he lightly translates most of this German for us,  such as ‘”Keine Ahnung’, Rudy said, clinging to the ladder. He had no idea.'” Again, there isn’t too much of this but just enough.

The repetition of the curses – “Saumensch”, “Saukerl”, “Jesus Mary and Joseph” – give it a light touch, as do things like the “Keine Ahnung … He had no idea” above and the gruesome humour of “they were going to Dachau to concentrate”. Again, none of this is overdone. Not too funny, but definite touches of humour. There are those who say you can’t “do” humour and the Holocaust, but I don’t agree: this book is a perfect example of why I don’t.

There is also poetry to the language – with this poetry coming as much through the rhythm, as through imagery:

In the morning he would return to the basement.
A voiceless human.
The Jewish rat, back to his hole.

[and]

She didn’t need an answer.
Everything was good.
But it was awful, too.

[and]

Why him?
Why Hans Huberman and not Alex Steiner.
He had a point.

[and]

Their drivers were Hitlers, and Hubermanns, and Maxes, killers, Dillers and Steiners.

And then there is the frequency of ‘3s’. For example:

  • The Hubermanns lived at 33 Himmel Street (and 33 was the age Jesus Christ was when he died – relevant?);
  • the common curse was ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph’;
  • a lot of the rhythms (such as the examples above) come in threes.
  • it is third time unlucky for Hans Hubermann
  • “The Word Shaker” written by Max story starts with “three important details about his life”.

The threes just keep coming. Three is a pretty magical number: the trinity; mind, body and spirit; past, present and future. The concept of “three” is found in most religions and represents, at its simplest, unity.

The novel seems to have two main themes. One is the power of words – to help and to hinder. I loved this, describing Leisel’s surviving the bombing: “the words WHO had saved her life”. The personification of words here, at the end of the novel, is really effective. Words sustain her through most of the book, but there was a point when she nearly gave up on them, as when she tears up a book in the mayor’s house after having seen Max in the Dachau march:

Soon there was nothing but scraps of words littered between her legs and all around her. The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Führer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or worldly tricks to make us feel better.

What good were the words.

BUT the other theme is the one that ends the book: what it means to be human. Death says:

I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race – that rarely do I ever estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, its words so damning and brilliant … tell her the only truth I truly know … I am haunted by humans.

In other words, Zusak, in this book, encapsulates humanity – its best and its worst – and does it through using ordinary people living in/coping with extraordinary times. His message is simply that humans are capable of wondrous things and of heinous things. No astonishing truth really – we all know it – but he shows how closely these can co-exist and how fine the line often is.

Markus Zusak
The book thief
Sydney: Picador, 2005
584pp.
ISBN:033036426X

Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is illuminated

Jonathan Safran Foer (Photo by Elena Torre, from flickr.com, under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

Jonathan Safran Foer (Photo by Elena Torre, from flickr.com, under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

He invented stories so fantastic she had to believe.

It’s hard to know where to start writing about Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is illuminated, so I’ll just start with a brief description of the plot. It concerns a search in the Ukraine by “the hero” (aka Jonathan Safran Foer) for the woman (Augustine?) who, he believes, saved his grandfather from the Nazis during World War 2. He is escorted on this trip by a translator Alex, a driver (Alex’s grandfather, also Alex), and their “seeing-eye bitch” dog, the absurdly named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior. This narrative is conveyed to us through three streams:

  • Alex’s (the translator, not the driver) story of the search for Augustine and Trachimbrod;
  • Jonathan Safran Foer’s (“the hero” and searcher) novel-in-progress about the history of his family in Trachimbrod (from 1791 to 1942); and
  • Alex’s (translator, again) letters to Foer about their search and his novel.

So far, so good, but if you have read my introductory post on the book you will know that this is a postmodern book and therefore a bit “tricksy”! And the first bit of “tricksiness” is that overlaying these narratives is the fact that Jonathan and Alex comment on each other’s writing, though we only hear this from Alex who comments in his letters on Jonathan’s work as well as responding to Jonathan’s comments on his work. Alex, then, is the main character in the book – if, that is, it can be said to have a main character. Certainly, Alex is the one whose character develops through the novel – from a rather callow youth who is full of bravado to a thoughtful young man (or “premium person”) ready to take on serious responsibilities.

At first, it is pretty funny – which, if you knew when you started that its subject is the Holocaust, could discomfort a little. I believe though that humour can deal effectively with the dark side, so I didn’t find it disconcerting – and, anyhow, the humour decreases as the book wears on. As Alex writes early in the novel:

I am able to understand now that it was the same laugh … the laugh that had the same darkness as Grandfather’s laugh and the hero’s laugh.

Humour and the multiple strand structure (combined with a convoluted but comprehensible chronology) are just two elements of this novel’s style. There are many others – too many really to cover in a short(ish) review – but fortunately I did refer to several of them in my introductory post. However, one I didn’t mention is Foer’s (the author this time!) use of different linguistic styles to represent the different characters and their strands, and to convey Alex’s growth towards maturity. It is with some disappointment, really, that we see his malaproprisms and other word-misuse (“I wore my peerless new jeans to oppress the hero”) disappear! There is also the magical realism in “the hero’s” story of Trachimbrod: the stories he tells about this shtetl stretch our credulity, but no more perhaps than does the cruelty of the Holocaust which is the point to which the narrative leads us. As the woman (Augustine? Lista? Does it matter?) who shows them what’s left of Trachimbrod says:

It is not a thing you can imagine. It only is. After that, there can be no imagining.

The book covers a lot of ground, including memory, history, place, names and identity, but two ideas that run throughout and that caught my attention are love and truth. “The hero’s” novel-within-the-novel speaks much about love, while Alex’s story of their search explores the notion of truth (though this distinction is not completely rigid). Why this is is not hard to understand when you know their (and their family’s) respective roles in the story: Alex would like to see through the “facts” to the “truth” (for some sort of absolution) while “the hero” would, it seems, like to believe that love can transcend all (to glean something from the wholesale destruction).

You can see the progression in Alex’s thinking in the following:

I also invented things that I thought might appease you, funny things and sad things. (p. 54)

This is a nice story. It’s true, I’m not making it up. (p. 158)

We are being very nomadic with the truth, yes? Do you think that this is acceptable when we are writing about things that occurred? (p. 179)

I would never command you to write a story that is as it occurred, but I would command you to make your story faithful. (p. 240)

Meanwhile, “the hero” is writing of love: Brod (his great-great-great-great-great or, “very-great”, grandmother) and her love-match with the Kolker in early 19th century Trachimbrod; the time when all the people of Trachimbrod thought they had a novel in them with all these novels being “about love”; his grandfather’s love for the gypsy girl between 1934 and 1941 (the gypsy and the Jew!). One of the most poignant lines of the novel describes love messages made out of war-time newspaper headlines:

…each note a collage of love that could never be, and war that could.

Love – what people do and don’t do for it – is, really, the heart of the book.

It’s a full-on novel, and suffers somewhat from that new-writer problem of trying to do too much: you almost wonder what is left for his second novel. That said, it’s a rollicking read despite the seriousness of its subject – and provides plenty of challenges for the grey matter. I was taken by this little mind-twister about Brod:

She repeats things until they are true, or until she can’t tell whether they are true or not. She has become an expert at confusing what is with what was with what should be with what could be.

This conveys the essential problem of writing about the Holocaust: the sheer horror of it is almost beyond comprehension.

Early in the novel Alex asks “the hero”:

Are you being a humorous writer here or an informed one?

I see no reason why you can’t be both – and Foer, in this novel, has pretty well pulled it off.