Aharon Appelfeld is a 49-year-old Israeli writer, a native of Bulgaria who was 8 years old when his mother was murdered by Nazis in his home town of Czernovitz. Soon thereafter he and his father were transported to a labor camp in the Ukraine; they were separated, and never again saw each other. But young Aharon managed to escape and to survive three years of foraging in the East European wilds -- much as does the young protagonist of Jerzy Kosinski's "The Painted Bird." By 1946 he had found his way to Israel, where he is now a prominent teacher and writer.
This is by way of background to "The Age of Wonders," the second of Appelfeld's novels to be published in the United States. The first, "Badenheim 1939," appeared a year ago to widespread and lavish critical applause. Originally published in Israel in 1975 (Appelfeld writes in Hebrew), it is an eerie, dreamlike, impressionistic novel that borders on fantasy yet is rooted in absolute horror; it is the story of a group of cultured Jews, gathered at a spa called Badenheim, who gaily, giddily collaborate in their own march toward the death camps.
"The Age of Wonders," published in Israel in 1978, treats similar themes but in a rather different voice. As in "Badenheim 1939" Appelfeld's language is cool and restrained, with an undercurrent of irony, but his method here is closer to realism than fantasy. Divided into two parts, the novel is the story of an Austrian-Jewish boy whose parents' marriage is disintegrating just as the fabric of the known world is disintegrating under the approaching terror of Nazism; years later the boy, now grown and living in Israel, returns to his old home town in hopes of understanding what happened to him and his world.
"It was the summer of 1938," the man recalls. "I was twelve years old and Father was forty-three. Nobody knew what the future held in store and what experiences awaited us." The father is a prominent writer -- a disciple of Franz Kafka, a friend of Stefan Zweig -- whose work is not going well: "Low, meaningless days chained us together. Father drank, tore up manuscripts, cursed his publishers and his own writing that never amounted to anything. Mother stood like the accused at a court-martial."
For the boy it is a time of quiet agony: "My own little life seemed to have gone astray in the commotion. The shadows of the forest merged into the full splendor of the summer's end. From the front window I could see the patchwork of fields stretching flat to the horizon. The thought that all this calm beauty was doomed quivered in me, a naked fear."
So far as his limited vision can see, the "quiet beauty" that is soon to vanish is the peace and security of his household. But in Austria, as in his family, there is a pervasive sense of rushing toward an unavoidable crisis after which "nothing would ever be the same again." The "intimations of orphanhood" that haunt the boy also haunt Austria's Jews, though few of them can see precisely what is happening.
The boy's father is one of these. For one thing, he is an anti-Semitic Jew: "He was angry with the Jewish petite bourgeoisie. He spent his time writing pamphlets attacking the Jewish petite bourgeoisie, saying that they should be stamped out because they were selfish, narrow-minded, and lacking in true feeling." But he also simply refuses to see evil plainly: "Father's determination to remain in Austria was even stronger than before. To leave at a time like this, with evil spirits raging, meant admitting that reason had lost out, that literature was to no avail."
The mother, though she and the father are by now separated, shares his blind, pathetic faith in reason. On his return years later to the town, the boy -- who has become the man, Bruno -- remembers the final days in Austria:
"In the last, bitter months when he had been expelled from the gymnasium and they were gathering in the youth club yard wearing brown uniforms, he would sit for hours in his room struggling with difficult Latin texts. The confusion was terrible but his mother would not relent: man is not an animal, after all. And thus, while everything around them warned of the approching earthquake he was tied to algebra exercises, to analyzing complicated Latin sentences. It was his mother's wish."
The mother is the voice of civilization: "Man is not an animal, after all." But Appelfeld sees that beast in the beauty, and he knows that vigilance is required. To deny the horror is to deny reality: "Since nobody knew that these were the last days in this house, on this street, and behind the grid of this lattice, which continued to cast its damp shade on the pavement, since nobody knew, everyone buried himself in his own affairs as if there were no end to this life."
That sentence, like so many others in this shattering novel, shimmers with a dark beauty in Dalya Bilu's fine translation. Over and over again, the quiet, unobtrusive rhythms of Appelfeld's prose underscore the thin line between civilization and barbarism. And by keeping barbarism in the background, by showing us only civilization mindlessly dooming itself, Appelfeld makes the terror all the more real. "The Age of Wonders" is a work of subtlety and artistry -- and passion.