Thursday, October 14, 2010

Appelfeld, Follett, Zimmermann

One of the most mysterious rabbinic techniques for deriving meaning from Scriptural texts is called hekeish, literally “juxtaposition,” and is based on the supposition that discrete texts concerned with unrelated topics but which nonetheless appear as contiguous sections of the Torah can nonetheless shed light on each other because of that contiguity. It’s a bit of an obscure concept within the art of rabbinic commentary, but I find myself applying it more and more to books that I’ve just happened to read one after the other…and noticing how what I read in one volume appears to shed light on what I’ve read in the other book despite the fact that the latter volume appears at face value to have nothing at all to do with the first book. This too, I realize, is an obscure idea. At the very least, it’s an unlikely interpretive avenue to travel down. And yet…it keeps happening to me!

Just a few weeks ago, I finished reading Aharon Appelfeld’s great book, Blooms of Darkness. Appelfeld, who writes in Hebrew, has published five books since Blooms of Darkness first came out in 2005, but this is the most recent of his books to appear in English translation. I have read, I believe, all (or at least almost all) of the sixteen of Appelfeld’s novels to be published in English over these many years, but this last one I attempted, and succeeded, to read in the Hebrew original. For those of my readers who can manage Hebrew, it’s absolutely worth the effort of reading his books in language in which they are written. Appelfeld’s Hebrew is literary, but not at all stuffy or overly ornate. He writes in simple, declarative sentences. He never uses two adjective where one will do. What he writes about is stark, even in places shocking, but also oddly familiar. He writes mostly about the Shoah. And more often than not his protagonists are children.

Blooms of Darkness, in Hebrew Pirchei Haafeila, tells the story of an eleven-year-old boy named Hugo. His father has been deported, presumably to his death. His mother, terrified, decides to go into hiding but knows it will be safest for them both if Hugo and she are separated. And so, after several failed attempts to find someone willing to risk harboring her child, she manages to contact a girlhood friend of hers, a Ukrainian woman name Mariana, and to extract from her a commitment to hide young Hugo. It is never made entirely clear, however, if Hugo’s mother understands that Mariana is a prostitute and that the house in which she lives, and in which she intends to hide Hugo, is a brothel. She surely does not understand that the clients of brothels in Nazi-occupied Ukraine were almost exclusively German soldiers. But even if she does know all that—we never quite find out how much she knows about Mariana’s life—she still has had no choice but to follow through on her original plan…and so she deposits Hugo there and then she disappears. We don’t find out her fate. I hope many of my readers will be prompted to want to read Appelfeld’s book so I don’t want to give too much away. I will say, though, that the final few chapters were beyond riveting. Here, in a few masterful strokes, the artist has managed to depict the state of the Jewish people itself at the end of the war: the losses unfathomable, the sense of near-total alienation from what were once familiar, or even friendly, surroundings so total as to be irreversible, the inability to see more than a few minutes into the future widely understood to constitute far more of a blessing than a curse. You’ll feel drained when the book finally ends. Yet I recommend it very highly. And I plan to read more of Appelfeld in Hebrew. (He has published almost three dozen works of fiction since his first book came out in 1962 and I haven’t read any of them in the original except for this one, so I won’t run out of books to choose from any time soon.)

The day I finished Blooms of Darkness—and I read in Hebrew about a third as quickly as in English—there arrived on my doorstep a behemoth of a book that I had pre-ordered on months ago and then forgotten all about: Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants. I’m a big Follett fan. His books I’ve also read all of. Pillars of the Earth and World Without End were, I think, my favorites. In the decade after Pillars, he brought out a number of books that weren’t, in my opinion, up to his usual standard. But then he returned to form with World Without End and now he has embarked on the Century Trilogy, a projected series of which Fall of Giants is the gargantuan first installment. (And even when he was down, he wasn’t out. A Dangerous Fortune, which came out a few years after Pillars of the Earth, was terrific.)

Fall of Giants is a big book—it’s almost a thousand pages long—and concerns the interwoven paths of four families, one Welsh, one English, one Russian, and one German, in the years between 1911 and 1925. There are plenty of Americans involved too, including a cameo by a surprisingly unappealing Woodrow Wilson. Like most Americans, I don’t know as much as I should about the First World War. Even back in high school I remember not quite getting it, not understanding how a war that appeared to be fought over nothing at all could possibly have cost the lives of almost ten million soldiers, including 126,000 Americans. (The numbers are almost unimaginable: if included are the definitely dead, the presumed dead, and those grievously wounded in battle, the grand total of the killed and the maimed was well over thirty-seven million.) In a sense, Follett’s book is an attempt to use the medium of fiction to explain, plausibly if perhaps not definitively, how this could possibly have happened, what could possibly have brought humanity to the kind of brutal insanity that led to death on a scale that even a few decades earlier would have been thought unfathomable.

Clearly, the entry of the United States into the war in 1917 was the decisive factor in the eventual victory of the Allied Powers. And to a great extent Follett’s book is about what brought that about. Americans were dithering. President Wilson was openly committed to America remaining neutral. Even the loss of 128 American lives when the Germans torpedoed and sank the Lusitania in 1915 did not draw America into the war!

And then came the Zimmermann telegram. It’s a long, complicated story that Follett makes the centerpiece of his argument. Readers interested in the long version should read Barbara Tuchman’s first-rate book, The Zimmermann Telegram, but the short version has to do with the fact that the Germans had not used their submarines against civilian targets since the Lusitania, but were planning to begin unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1. Fearing that America might respond by entering the war, the Germans evolved a plan that was set forth in a telegram the German foreign secretary, Arthur Zimmermann, sent to the German ambassador in Washington in January of 1917 with the request that he forward it to the German ambassador in Mexico City. The offer was simple: if it appeared likely that the United States was going to enter the war on the side of the Allies, the ambassador was to approach the Mexican government and invite them to ally themselves with Germany. The Germans, the offer made clear, would respond by joining Mexico in militarily pursuing its efforts to return to Mexican sovereignty Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, as well as some other lands lost in the Mexican-American War of 1848. The rest, so Follett, is history. The Americans were clearly supposed to be so terrified of suddenly finding a Germany army massing on its southern border that intervention in Europe would become impossible. But the Brits managed to intercept the telegram and somehow to decode it. The contents was passed along to the Americans and revealed to the American public on March 1, 1917. America declared war on Germany on April 6. The Mexicans appear never even to have considered going to war with the United States.

It’s a long and crooked road from Room 40, the famous code-breaking section of the British Admiralty, to that lonely street depicted in Appelfeld’s novel as a boy from whom everything except life itself has been taken heartbreakingly walks slowly towards his former home to see if his parents have returned. (We know what he will find, or we think we do. Only Hugo has no idea.) And yet, there is also the breathtaking implication of Follett’s book as he leads us forward into the post-war era to consider. Because the Zimmermann telegram was decoded, he asserts, America entered the war. And it was because America entered the war that the Allied Powers won. And it was then because the Allies won and imposed on the losers a wholly ungenerous peace treaty that impoverished Germany, led to hyperinflation, and savagely humiliated the average German-in-the-street (none of whom had elected to go to war and almost two and a half million of whom had died in a conflict the point of which most would have been unable to explain, let alone cogently justify), National Socialism with its promise of future grandeur and restored military power—and also with its savvy understanding that blaming the Jews (who were present and could not defend themselves against the onslaught of a wholly hostile government) was going to play better than blaming Germany’s woes on foreigners with whom no German had any actual contact—was able to gain first a toehold, then a foothold, then eventually to come to power and thus to be in a position to self-grant its demented policies the authority of law.

And yet…Follett’s other suggestion, that absent American intervention the war would neither have been won nor lost by anybody at all but simply ground to a halt and been declared over, leads to that kind of historical “what-if” thinking that is so alluring and upsetting at the same time. If the telegram hadn’t been intercepted, would the United States have joined the war? If we hadn’t joined the war, how would the war have ended? If it had ended in a kind of draw without Germany being plunged into a pit of demoralization, poverty, and indebtedness from which no relief was imaginable, would the Nazis have come to power? You see where I’m going…and although one never finds out the answers to questions like these, they are still instructive to ponder.

We spend a lot of time telling ourselves that nothing matters, that no one can change the world, that we are all small fry in a world that barely pauses to notice regular people such as ourselves. But then we read a book like Ken Follett’s latest novel and suddenly it seems possible to imagine that the fate of the world rested, just for a day or two, in the hands of a single cryptographer in London who personally altered the course of history simply by doing his job. Is that so? No one can say or ever will be able to say. But it should give us pause for thought, we who too go to work every day and do things we like to imagine are not of any “real” consequence. That thought both appalls and appeals, the former because it confirms our sense of being personally unimportant in the greater scheme of things and the latter because it also allows us not to feel especially responsible for much more than ourselves and our families. But sometimes…our actions really do count and in ways that no one, least of all the actor him or herself, could possibly be expected to imagine in advance. Perhaps, in fact, that is the real lesson I learned from reading Follett on the heels of Appelfeld: that the noble path in life is to suppose that everything we do can and possibly even will have consequences far beyond anything we could even begin to fathom. The key, as always, is to be energized by that thought rather than paralyzed by it….and always to behave in a way that reflects the humility that kind of potential (unpredictable and indiscernible though it may be) can and should engender in us all.

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