By Aharon Appelfeld
Translated from the Hebrew
By Jeffrey M. Green
Grove Weidenfeld. 220 pp. $16.95
"WHAT RIGHT had he to tell the tale of his group? . . . The redeeming word did not come . . . If he had found the redeeming word he would not be writing."
There is no redeeming word that can save survivors of the Holocaust from what they have known. The tormented speaker, a character in an early Aharon Appelfeld book, In The Wilderness, knows that and so does Appelfeld himself, the detailer and fabulist of what he calls the "margins" of the Holocaust -- the months just before and the years after the untellable event.
Appelfeld was born in Czernowitz, Romania, to an upper-middle-class, German-speaking Jewish family. In their assimilated home, Yiddish was strictly forbidden. His parents were deported in 1940 and the boy, then eight, was sent to a Nazi work camp. He escaped and lived on his own, a fugitive in the Ukrainian woods. In 1944 a Red Army unit picked him up and eventually brought him to Yugoslavia. He made his way as an illegal alien to Israel, where he now lives and writes in Hebrew, the one language his parents never dreamed of as an alternative to their beloved Viennese German.
What he has done, in his 20 or so novels (the best known of which is probably Badenheim 1939) is to weave, like some great healing spider, a dreamlike tapestry of the faithful and the faithless, the dull-witted and the sharp, the blind ones who didn't see their fate coming and the ones who outlived it and can't stop seeing it. His stories never enter the camps -- what happened there, Appelfeld says, is too unreal even for fiction -- but move around it, a great, silent, black, intensely magnetic hole. Like dreams (and like the world he has known), his books are vividly detailed but proceed with great lapses in causality; things happen for no reason; the most intensely felt needs go unverbalized and most actions are uncompleted. But still events move, magnetically drawn toward the precipice.
His characters are not sainted elders, self-sacrificing parents and innocent, gifted children. They are ordinary short-tempered businessmen, snobbish householders, forgetful and depleted old people, and disappointing children. Most of them are scornful of religion. In short these are the assimilated Jews that Appelfeld loves for their complexity and their flaws and he defiantly limns them, preserving them from the final annihilation, the vapidity of martyrdom.
Appelfeld's new novel, The Healer, takes place in an unspecified autumn at a Jewish resort in the Carpathian mountains. It is a last resort for a Viennese family, Felix and Henrietta and their children, Helga and Karl, who have come seeking a cure for Helga's mental illness. Henrietta has heard that there is a holy man who can help them where doctors have failed. Felix, assimilated and intensely scornful of religion, is struck mute with rage at finding himself in this position. In fact, silence is the idiom of this family. They don't know what to say to each other, so they read each other's gestures. The marriage is moribund and the children are a disappointment to their parents; Karl is failing in school and Helga, who had real promise, has become inexplicably morose, unable to function. It becomes clear that what really ails Helga is the family illness, silence and despair.
Once there, Henrietta becomes aggressive. She speaks Yiddish to the innkeeper -- Felix is appalled -- puts a kerchief on her head and resolutely takes Helga to the healer, who turns out to be an aging rabbi. They don't get in to see him the first day -- the healer himself is sick -- but eventually they do, and his prescription for Helga is that she learn to read Hebrew. "The holy letters bring us closer to our home," he tells her. "We have a great many foreign parts within us, do we not? But we, thank God have a home. We can return home."
The two women huddle in study and Felix, left with Karl, discovers that the boy has a strength after all: He is no soft Jew but an athlete, lusty and natural. In fact as the story progresses, Karl becomes more and more like gentile peasants in the mountains, until at the end Felix is delightedly certain that Karl will be untainted, free of his Jewishness. But he despairs of Helga, drawn deeper and deeper into Henrietta's new, repugnant faith. Loving and tormented, Felix sees that he has no chance of wresting Helga free and determines that he must leave. But winter has closed in -- "the heights were cut off; no one could come or go." A local dairyman preaches Felix "an old sermon: Time is not on our side. Every day brings a new evil." THE ACTION turns surreal. Felix gestures but can't move, feels but can't speak; the snow envelopes them and mutes everything. When winter finally lifts, Felix is in an agony of guilt over abandoning Helga, but he and Karl head for Vienna, pure German and the civilized life. Ominous signs that Felix doesn't see establish the time for us, after all: It is too late.
Appelfeld has written elsewhere on every theme in this book: the failed marriage and the tug-of-war over the children with the mother winning, the disappointing and ultimately abandoned child, parents' guilt over a fate beyond their control, religion as a relic, the resort on the precipice of history. Why do it again? Partly the answer is that in this terrifying dream story, Appelfeld is talking in more depth than he has before about home. Henrietta and Helga seek a cure in the faith of their ancestors, but the healer is himself sick, exhausted and bewildered. Felix goes to the only home he knows and finds it usurped by the gentile maid. There is no home; in the end, it was only a dream.
But partly The Healer is Appelfeld's redemption of Felix, a clear and detailed portrait snatched from oblivion. If this is not Appelfeld's most powerful book, Felix is one of his most impressive characters. "Who will remember me in another day?" he asks himself on the mountain. Appelfeld does, redemption enough.
Rita Kashner is the author of "Bed Rest," "To the Tenth Generation," and "The Graceful Exit."