Friday, May 3, 2013

The Storyteller

I am not a literary snob. I am not, therefore, someone who looks down on books that hoi polloi read and enjoy, but that fail to meet my lofty standards of literary excellence. Instead, I prefer to judge books, including mass-market best sellers, based on the degree to which I find them engaging and satisfying to read, and specifically without respect to the author’s pedigree, education,  day job, real-life status, or prior accomplishments.

It was in that spirit, in fact, that I bought and read Jodi Picoult’s new novel, The Storyteller. She’s a good example—Danielle Steele and Tom Clancy are others—of people who write hugely bestselling books but who have never acquired the cachet of a “serious” author, the kind of author whose books are taught to undergraduates as opposed merely to being read by them.  But there was another reason I was drawn to read The Storyteller and that had to do with its plot. It is a big hit, that book, currently on both the Times’ bestseller list of hardcover fiction and its list of bestselling e-books. It will be read, at least eventually, not by thousands but by hundreds of thousands, if not more. (In aggregate, Jodi Picoult has about 14 million books in print. Her twenty-odd previous books have been published in thirty-five countries in thirty-four different languages.) As a result, she constitutes her own private voice of America to many out there in the big, wide world. And this novel she has just published, The Storyteller, is therefore going to be what all those uncountable people read and believe specifically about the Shoah.

People who haven’t ever heard of Elie Wiesel, Saul Friedländer, or Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, much less read their books, have heard of Jodi Picoult! And so it was also for that reason that I set myself to reading the novel last week. What countless thousands across the globe are going to know of the Holocaust, I want to know too! (I plan to be particularly interested in reading how the book is received in Germany when it comes out in German translation.) In truth, I know Picoult’s work only slightly. Joan and I once listened to one of her novels on long drives to and from Toronto, and we both found it somewhere between cloying and irritating, and did not come away as long-term fans.  But I was more than prepared to give her a second chance this time ‘round. If someone with fourteen million books in print is prepared to set a book in the Lodz ghetto and in Auschwitz, then I am prepared to read what she has to say!

I have to say that I was impressed. Not by the literary quality of the book particularly, but by her willingness not to cut corners and to tell her story plainly and clearly. At the heart of the novel, which is told from ever-shifting points of view by four different narrators, are the two chapters narrated by the “main” narrator’s grandmother, an elderly woman named Minka. These chapters, not unlike the two “Shoah” chapters in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (about which novel I wrote to you at length last year), these twin chapters are the axis around which the rest of the plot revolves. And they are, to say the least, harrowing. Even the worst stories of all—the story, for example, of the unimaginable events leading up to September 4, 1942, the day on which the residents of the ghetto were ordered to hand over all children under the age of ten for immediate deportation—even that story is told in detail and without flinching. Or without flinching much. Nor is Minka’s account of her time in Auschwitz told other than in stark, plain prose. Since she lived to tell her tale, Minka’s story was atypical of those who were sent there. But Picoult understands that, or seems to, and bends the story just far enough—but without taking readers actually into the gas chambers in the way Andre Schwarz Bart did in The Last of the Just or Herman Wouk did in War and Remembrance or Grossman did in Life and Fate—for readers to get a reasonable picture as well of what fate those not selected for work met upon arrival.

I’ve read more Shoah novels than I can remember the names of. But I found myself engaged by Minka’s account, even when it veered so far into unlikelihood that it was barely believable. To say the same thing differently, the people in the foreground were whoever Picoult’s storyline required them to be, but it was the background that drew me into the book, the stories of the people about whom the book isn’t but who are simply present as the story of the people that the book is about unfolds around them.

Two themes that are featured throughout the book are worth mentioning. One is the theme of forgiveness. I won’t spoil the plot for anyone who may read the book, but the story turns on the question of whether anyone has the right to forgive someone for wrongs done to other people. The k’doshim of the Shoah died in the whirlwind, for example, and are no more. Does that, in and of itself, mean that there can be no forgiveness, no repentance, and no atonement for the perpetrators?  Most of us, I think, would handily agree with the notion that there can never be atonement absent reconciliation with the wronged party. But Picoult moves the discussion onto even less comfortable ground by twisting the plot to make this a point of contention between an ex-nun who represents the Christian notion of forgiving one’s oppressors, of turning the other cheek, and of seeking absolution through confession and penance, and a young self-denying Jew (that is, the child of Jewish parents who insists that she is not a Jew at all, which is—perhaps not irrelevantly—how Picoult describes her own relationship to her parents’ Jewishness in an interview presented on her website) who appears to represent the traditional Jewish disinclination to offer cheap forgiveness for aggression against others.

Neither position fits well. The Christian position is presented simplistically and, in my opinion, oddly. The Jewish position is presented oddly as well, clearly seen through Christian lenses and not especially flatteringly at that.  What Picoult is doing—and what she herself says she is setting out to do in her preface—is responding to Simon Wiesenthal’s book, The Sunflower, which is about the efforts of a former SS officer to gain forgiveness after the fact not from the people in whose murder he was complicit (which story is told in horrific detail in the book), but from some other Jewish person—Wiesenthal himself—whom he has arbitrarily selected as his source of potential Jewish absolution.  Wiesenthal’s book is one of the more profound works on forgiveness (and particularly on forgiveness in the context of the Shoah) I have ever read and I recommend it to you wholeheartedly, especially in its later editions which include responses from all sorts of others, including Primo Levi, Desmond Tutu, Albert Speer, and the Dalai Lama. This book constitutes Jodi Picoult’s answer to Wiesenthal’s question. (My own answer, I believe, is that the gates of repentance are always open—just as tradition teaches us—yet that not all may step through them. And thus is laid the groundwork for the traditional Jewish approach to atonement as well: that the ability to repent oneself of one’s sins and to atone for them is itself a gift from God that must be earned, and that it is perfectly possibly not to have earned it. So my response to that part of the book is also equivocal.)  

On the one hand, the book for interested parties to read is The Sunflower, not The Storyteller. On the other, I’m willing to guess that an overwhelming majority of Picoult’s readers will never have heard of Wiesenthal or his book, and so may possibly be led to consider reading it not by reading this letter by me to you but by reading Jodi Picoult’s preface to her own book. And we are talking, at least potentially, about a lot of people.

Also running through the book is an odd countertale about vampires. Presented in the book as a story written by Minka—one of the most ridiculous parts of the storyline features Minka, who just happens to speak perfect German, as a prisoner in Auschwitz gaining all sorts of favors from one of the upper-level Nazis employed there because he likes to listen to her read from her manuscript—the actual tale is chilling and, in its own way, interesting. If I understand the concept correctly, we are supposed to understand that there are people—the undead in our midst—who are congenitally programmed to devour their brethren. Is the point that Nazis, like vampires, had no choice? Precisely the opposite point is argued throughout the novel, yet the vampire story moves forward throughout the whole book and only ends when the vampire himself stops destroying because he himself is destroyed. Of course, the undead cannot really die, and so…we are left wondering if and when the story will recommence.  Somewhere in there is a Shoah parable, something to do with the impossibility of eradicating anti-Semitism because of the degree to which it is embedded in Western culture. (In this regard, readers would do better to read University of Chicago professor David Nirenberg’s new book, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, which I read earlier this spring and found very worthy and interesting.) But the whole vampire story is distracting and, in the end, even I wasn’t sure what exactly the point of telling it was. It was not, however, intended to make readers reeling from the impact of the worst of Picoult’s Shoah stories feel any better. As well it will not!

We who have accepted upon ourselves the sacred task of keeping the memory of the martyrs alive cannot be sorry that a major popular author has written a book that will introduce the basic story of the Shoah to countless readers who might otherwise know little or nothing about it. That the story as told is unlikely in the extreme—Minka’s granddaughter breaks off her affair with a married mortician because she ends up falling in love with the agent from the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations who is sent to her idyllic New Hampshire town when she comes to believe that she has inadvertently befriended one of the SS officers, now living in hiding half a century later, who tormented her grandmother and murdered her best friend—but compelling in its unlikely, convoluted way. The vampires are intriguing, if under-explained. The whole plot is a bit silly—the theme of baking is also featured very prominently both in the real book and the book-within-a-book about vampires—but the Shoah passages are truly harrowing and, within the limits of mass-market fiction, accurate enough.

The short answer is that I didn’t love the book. But I love that the book is out there, that thousands upon thousands of Americans and readers in other countries will read it and be moved by Minka’s story and by her granddaughter’s. And if some of those readers are moved to read Wiesenthal’s book or other historical accounts of the Shoah, then Jodi Picoult—even despite her glib disavowal of her parents’ Jewishness—will truly have done something of merit for Jews everywhere.

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