The upright fiction of Aharon Appelfeld arises from the level facts of his anguished and brave young life. Like the novels themselves, a note on their author is laconic, lapidary and on oath:
Aharon Appelfeld was born in 1932 in Czernovitz, Bukovina (now part of the USSR). His mother was killed by the Nazis, and he was deported at the age of eight to a concentration camp, from which he escaped. He spent the next three years in hiding in the Ukraine, and eventually joined the Russian army. After the war, he made his way to Italy and, in 1946, to Palestine. He now lives in Jerusalem.
As a novelist Appelfeld has his paradoxes, but the simple truth is that he is truly a writer. Temperate and harrowing, tender and unflinching, dignified yet importunate, without remission he cares for what has proved to be the case. His cadences, as both of his selfless translators make good, are his own. He moves beyond making the familiar strange, he brings home that it plainly is so, as the strange is familiar – and the appalling is everyday. Mildly, obdurately, without clamour, he beseeches and besieges.
He shapes short books, and, in all, they are over a thousand pages deep. He tells the same story over and over again, and a reader would not misplace a character, a reflection, a description even. It is with the perils of obsession that he is vigilantly obsessed.
He cannot grasp, he can only grasp at, the surety that anyone at all ever managed to escape the lethal past, even though he himself somehow effected it.
‘If you hadn’t told me, I’d never have guessed that you were Jewish. How did you do it?’ ‘I don’t know. I didn’t do anything.’
Not doing anything, this 13-year-old child, Tzili, in Tzili: The Story of a Life, saved herself unthinkingly, when (bereft and not even knowing herself bereaved) she answered the blind man’s question ‘You’re Maria’s daughter, aren’t you?’ with the untrue password of salvation: ‘Yes.’ The better man who (in a way) befriends her cannot but writhe at her innocence. He too, and too much, knows what it is, this life as a Jew on the run, and he will not let her alone.
‘I once saw them with my own eyes hunting a little Jewish child.’ ‘And do they kill everyone?’ Tzili asked. ‘What do you think?’ he said in an unpleasant tone of voice.
Appelfeld cannot conceive of escaping into the past, or from the past, from the Holocaust and its unspeakable legacy, except that conceiving of escaping is exactly what his characters, his people, indefatigably do, both in the stalked past and in the haunted present. He evokes horrors of the utmost cruelty and injustice, even while his art evinces an equanimity as profoundly disconcerting as that of his master in tragic simplicity, not a novelist but a poet, Wordsworth.
The endings of all his novels are shadowed by the Final Solution. Final for monstrously many, but not for all whom it craved to extirpate. Those who lived through it, as Appelfeld did, will not cease to be compelled to live it through again. What would it be, to put such suffering behind you? These are novels which comprehend both the sense in which the anti-semitic genocide remains an appalling mystery and the sense in which it is appallingly no such thing. It followed.
The impossible, the sensible, the honourable and the clear: these are transparent in Appelfeld’s novels, in the spirit of Wittgenstein’s contemplation of anti-semitism:
When you can’t unravel a tangle, the most sensible thing is for you to recognise this; and the most honourable thing, to admit it.
What you ought to do to remedy the evil is not clear. What you must not do is clear in particular cases.
What the artist must not do is suppose that the evil could be remedied by art. Yet an artist offers something which both is and is not remedy. It can be sovereign.
Appelfeld stops short of describing the ultimate horrors and degradations, and this is not a failure of nerve but a success of it.
The earliest of these novels, and probably the one which shows the greatest inerrancy in its integrity of fable and history, Badenheim 1939 tells of the vile quarantining of the Jews of Badenheim as they assemble for the music festival. The Jews are garnered with patient madness by ‘the Sanitation Department’, and everything gathers to the horror which finally transports these doomed people, this doomed people, even while hoping against hopelessness. The end of the book is not their very end but it is the bitter end:
But their amazement was cut short. An engine, an engine coupled to four filthy freight cars, emerged from the hills and stopped at the station. Its appearance was as sudden as if it had risen from a pit in the ground. ‘Get in!’ yelled invisible voices. And the people were sucked in. Even those who were standing with a bottle of lemonade in their hands, a bar of chocolate, the head-waiter with his dog-they were all sucked in as easily as grains of wheat poured into a funnel. Nevertheless Dr Pappenheim found time to make the following remark: ‘If the coaches are so dirty it must mean that we have not far to go.’
Poor kindly Dr Pappenheim, whose words are the opposite of the truth and yet the truth. His consolatory bid has come to minister only to pathos and exasperation, yet at the time it was meant (with what clutching at self-deception, who can know?) to comfort. 1939? Early days? Evil days, and evil tongues, and more than tongues.
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Christopher Ricks discusses the following novels by Aharon Appelfeld:
Badenheim 1939. Dent, 148 pp., £3.50, 1981 (originally published 1980), 0 460 02273 3.
The Age of Wonders. Weidenfeld, 207 pp., £11.95, 1987 (1981), 0 297 79155 9.
Tzili: The Story of a Life. Dutton, 185 pp., $12.95, 1983 (1982).
The Retreat. Quartet, 125 pp., £3.95, 1985 (1984), 0 704 33487 9.
To the Land of the Reeds. Weidenfeld, 148 pp., £9.95, 1987 (1986), 0 297 78972 4.
The Immortal Bartfuss. Weidenfeld, 137 pp., £10.95, 1988 (1987), 0 297 79272 5.
For Every Sin. Weidenfeld, 168 pp., £11.95, 1989 (1989), 0 297 79700 X.
All translated by Jeffrey Green.