Friday, May 18, 2012

Bravo Appelfeld!

The other day, Aharon Appelfeld, the 80-year-old Israeli author about whom I’ve written in this space several times now, became the oldest author ever to win the prestigious Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. (The prize has that name because it was originally administered by The Independent, a British newspaper, and still called by that name even though it is now run by Booktrust, an independent British charity dedicated to promoting great books and encouraging reading in general.) He’s in very good company—a list of past nominees for the prize reads like a roster of some of my all-time favorite non-English-writing authors: Haruki Murakami, Alaa Al-Aswany, David Grossman, Amos Oz, Orhan Pamuk, even the late José Saramago (whose books I really did enjoy thoroughly until his extreme, one-sided anti-Israelism made it impossible for me to read his books neutrally or calmly).

The specific book for which Appelfeld won the prize was Blooms of Darkness, a novel I wrote to you at length about in October, 2010, comparing it there to Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants. (If you are reading this electronically, you can find my comments here.) But today I’d like to write about the man’s larger body of work, and recommend his books to all of you more generally. Any who have yet to read one of his books are in for a rare treat. But those of you who have only read a few of his books should consider undertaking a read-through of the whole corpus (or rather, please God, the whole corpus to date). Appelfeld’s books are all short. His prose is spare, even in places austere. He has the uncanny ability, so rare in novelists (and yes, yes, even rarer in rabbis), to say more by saying less, always to remember that the deepest emotions can be stirred far more effectively with a feather than with a literary sledgehammer.

Appelfeld’s entire body of work is about the Shoah in one way or the other. He himself was a child survivor, having been born in Czernowitz, today part of Ukraine. When the Romanian army invaded in 1941, his mother was murdered. He and his father were deported to a concentration camp, but he somehow managed to escape almost immediately after arriving and, despite the fact that he was all of eight years old in 1941, managed somehow to survive in hiding for three years. Then, at age eleven, he somehow ended up working for the Red Army as a child cook. When the war finally ended, he was still not bar-mitzvah age. But he was old enough to be interned in a displaced persons camp in Italy, where he had a series of formative experiences about which he has written repeatedly and rivetingly. In 1946, he immigrated to Palestine, only then to learn that his father too had somehow survived. One of the holes in the story as related through his thirty-seven novels—as justifiable as it is lamentable—has to do with their eventual reunion in British Palestine: even after all these years, Appelfeld—whose 2003 autobiography, The Story of a Life, detailed his experiences during and after the war—has never written about their reunion. Nor, I suspect, will he ever. Some things, apparently, are beyond the written word. Perhaps it takes a writer of Aharon Appelfeld’s enormous talent to know where the edge of literary expressibility truly lies.

One of the features of Appelfeld’s writing that has spoken the most deeply to me personally over the years has been his repeated efforts to describe the Shoah through the eyes of children. As noted above, he himself was a child when he lived through his own wartime experiences. In a sense, his body of literary work could be characterized as an extended midrash on that detail, on what it could possibly mean for a child to witness what adults themselves found and find unfathomable. It is that specific aspect of his writing that I’d like to write about today.

Blooms of Darkness is about a child, probably not unlike the author, whose middle class existence within the Jewish community of a large European city abruptly ends with the onset of the war. His father disappears, but just as any eleven-year-old would, Hugo lacks the insight into the larger picture to understand the true scope of the disaster that has befallen his people and his city and his family. His mother, frantic with worry, embarks on a complicated crusade to find a Gentile—any Gentile at all—who will risk his or her life to hide her little boy from his would-be murderers. One plan after another falls through, but then she somehow comes into contact with a childhood friend, a Ukrainian woman named Mariana, who agrees to harbor the boy. What Hugo’s mother appears not fully to understand—although we never find out if that really is the case or if she just wills herself not to know, or perhaps not to care—is that Mariana is not only a prostitute, but one who lives (and not merely works) in a brothel, the exclusive clients of which are now German soldiers. Hugo can pass, however. He speaks Ukrainian. He looks enough like he could possibly be Mariana’s nephew for the subterfuge plausibly to work. In any event, he never leaves her bedroom, never steps outside, remains as still as possible for most of the day. He doesn’t move around. He barely breathes. As the months pass, and then the years, Mariana becomes all of Hugo’s world. But his presence becomes an important factor in her life as well, and she too grows dramatically because of their relationship. As Hugo approaches puberty, his feelings undergo just the kind of complicated metamorphosis that you would expect would characterize a boy growing to maturity with no friends around with whom to compare notes (and, indeed, with no male companions of any sort), no parents, and only a single woman as his friend and mentor. And then the war ends, the Germans flee, the Red Army occupies the town…and begins its concerted effort to root out collaborators, specifically including all women who granted comfort to the enemy during the occupation.

At the end of the book, Hugo is all alone in the world. His friends are all gone. His parents are gone. Marina herself too is gone, never to return. Somehow, Hugo comes to realize that the prison by the front gate of which he has been waiting for Marina to emerge is not actually that far from his parents’ old apartment. And so he embarks on a walk to his old home, the description of which has to be one of the finest, most moving pieces of writing about the Shoah I’ve ever read, one as overwhelming as it is understated.

Appelfeld could not have deserved his prize more. But there are others of his books to recommend to you as well. All Whom I Have Loved, published in 1999 in Hebrew and then in 2007 in English translation, is the story of a nine-year-old boy, Paul Rosenfeld. The book is set in 1938. Little Paul’s parents are divorced and, soon enough, they are both dead: his mother of typhus (after being abandoned by her second husband, a Gentile who seems to represent the false promise of security vaguely offered to the Jews of Europe by modernity itself) and his father shot down while trying to prevent the robbery of a Jewish shop. And then, like Hugo, little Paul is alone in the world, facing unimaginable events without anything even remotely like the perspective necessary to interpret them.

Appelfeld’s description, then, of an orphaned child facing a cataclysm the dimensions of which he cannot even begin to fathom becomes the author’s model for conceptualizing the situation of European Jewry in 1938. These books are painful to read, obviously. But they are also endlessly illuminating, thus also deeply satisfying. In an interview in the Israeli newspaper Globus in 2007, Appelfeld said “I have written forty books and every single one is part of the story of my own life. All my books are linked to each other and differ only in that they explore different corners of my own history.” The little boys in all these books, then, are the author. And, of course, they are also all of us….grown-up children, trying to fathom the unfathomable and nevertheless to find a place in the world in which to flourish.

Not all of Appelfeld’s “children” are boys. A third book worth mentioning is Tzili, the story of a young girl in war-torn Europe. When the front approaches her home, her parents run off and leave her to guard the house. When she herself flees, there begins a serious of adventures that form the core of the narrative: her stay with an aging prostitute named Katerina who is capable of kindness but also of great cruelty to her basically unwanted visitor, her subsequent stay with a family of peasants who see nothing wrong with beating her for the slightly infraction of their family’s rule, her encounter with a Jewish man named Mark who has escaped from one of the camps and with whom Tzili finally finds love (and pregnancy, which ends in miscarriage) but who eventually leaves her, and finally her aliyah to British Palestine on a ship packed full of rootless, identiless people like herself who can only hope that they will find in each other’s company the companionship, understanding, and security the world has never really offered any of them. It’s the rare male author who can write of a woman’s journey to adulthood like this. Men and women are similar, obviously, in many ways. But it is precisely the ways in which they differ that constitute the greatest challenge for any author attempting to write someone else’s story when that someone is of the opposite gender. Appelfeld, I think, gets Tzili Kraus down perfectly, though, writing about her coming of age—and specifically the onset of menstruation and her first attempts to understand physical love—in a way that stays with me still, even though I read the book fifteen years ago. The sign of a truly great author, after all, lies precisely in the ability to make of every character in every book some sort of literary midrash of his or her own psyche and nevertheless for the description of them as men and women in their own right to ring perfectly true. And it is that specific talent that, in my opinion, constitutes Appelfeld’s greatest gift.

One final book I’d like to write about, also about a young person, is Laish. Set outside of time, this peculiar—but ultimately very satisfying—novel reads like an extended fable. Laish is a boy of fifteen, an orphan who has somehow ended up as part of a caravan of Jews shlepping through Eastern Europe on their way to Jerusalem, where they are convinced they will find the solutions to all of their problems and the cures of all of their physical and psychological illnesses. On the way, they are beset by endless woes. Some are pious students of Torah whose lives, even under the worst circumstances, are bounded by prayer and ritual. Some of them are scurrilous criminals whose daily lives are given over to violence, extortion, and theft. Some are their resigned victims. And still others are idiots who cannot really fathom the point of the journey, yet who seem unable simply to give up and settle where they are. No towns are given names; we never really know where these people are or what year this is. All we learn is that they are following a river, the Prut, because they believe it will take them to Palestine, to Jerusalem. (The Prut is a real river that, beginning in the Carpathian Mountains, traveling along the border between Romania and Moldova, and eventually emptying into the Danube, most certainly does not lead to the Middle East.) Laish speaks for himself, but he also narrates for the others; this is a first-person narrative about a young man telling his own story by telling other people’s stories. Alternately violent and soothing, the point of the book is to describe the journey of the Jewish people itself towards salvation, towards Israel. At first feeling at sea, readers—or at least Jewish readers—will eventually find themselves in the book as they realize that one of the traveler’s portraits mirrors his or her own life story more than slightly. But, like all great novels, this is as much a book about the human condition as it is specifically about the people whose story it reveals. I recommend it highly: for a novel that overtly has nothing to do at all with the Holocaust, Laish is nevertheless an exceptionally powerful contribution to Shoah literature because within its pages lies a portrait of European Jewry on the eve of destruction that both could not be less flattering and yet somehow which also draws readers in and invites them to travel along with this motley crew of thieves, rabbis, and children on their way to the future of the Jewish people on the other side of an abyss none of them can see and which surely none of them could ever begin even remotely to imagine.

There are a lot of other books by Aharon Appelfeld I could recommend. The Healer, The Iron Tracks, Badenheim 1939, and Age of Wonders come to mind. (Age of Wonders I would like especially to recommend as one of Appelfeld’s true tours de force, a comment on Jewish reality that no one who reads will ever forget). Appelfeld has won all his awards—the Israel Prize, the Bialik Prize, the Prix Médicis in France, the National Jewish Book Award here in the U.S., the Nelly Sachs Prize in Germany—so, at least in a sense, this last one is just a bit more icing on the man’s cake. But it is also satisfying to see one of our greatest authors, now a full half-century into his career, still being recognized for his work both inside and outside Israel. We should all be proud! If any of you has yet to start reading through the oeuvre, this is surely the right moment to begin.

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