The Story of A Life

by Aharon Appelfeld

translation by Aloma Halter

Published by Schocken

198 pages, 2003





Not the Messenger

Reviewed by Brendan Wolfe


In his terrifying and beautiful new memoir, The Story of a Life, Aharon Appelfeld does more than tell his life story (although, with his elliptical style, which can be rather like a narrative form of Swiss cheese, it sometimes seems as if he does less than that, too): The Israeli writer and Holocaust survivor battles history itself.

Of course, the Holocaust is everywhere these days, employed in all manner of fiction and film for purposes large and small. Philip Roth puts it to original use in The Plot Against America, in part to twist the rope on what might otherwise be the dull story of a Newark boyhood. Rather than write about the real pogroms, however, he invents his own, starring Charles Lindbergh for the bad guys and Walter Winchell (yes, Walter Winchell) for the good guys.

It is, in one critic's estimation, a "low rent" conceit. But it neatly sidesteps all the jackbooted sanctimony that accompanies so many fictional treatments of Nazi crimes and, more importantly, it restores to history a sense of contingency. Nothing is inevitable, Roth's book insists. If it happened there, it might have happened here. And if it happened then, what might happen now?

Roth calls it the "terror of the unforeseen," and this is exactly the terror that, over five decades, has haunted his friend Appelfeld's writing. The difference is that rather than invent history, Appelfeld has been a master at making it disappear.

Seek and you will not find many ghettoes or concentration camps in his books, except in shadow. Novels like Badenheim 1939 and The Conversion are set before the killing started, when the Jews of Europe -- secular, educated, self-loathing -- were busy chattering and feuding and riding the trains, oblivious as children to their doom. Appelfeld's famously spare prose, meanwhile, seems to smudge away time by ignoring it. His stories have the feeling of a nightmare, but only his readers, and never his characters, know why.

This artistic reticence, exquisite as it may be, has often been overwhelmed by that other looming presence: Appelfeld's own life story. Born in the small town of Czernowitz in what is now the Ukraine, he watched as his mother, grandmother and scores of other Jews were murdered with pitchforks and kitchen knives by invading Nazis and Romanians. He and his father were herded into a ghetto and later force-marched to a labor camp. His father died there, but Appelfeld, just 10 years old, escaped into the woods, living on the run for three years. In 1946, he immigrated to Palestine.

Despite such a compelling story, or perhaps because of it, Appelfeld has, over the years, avoided writing about himself. "The things that happened to me in my life have already happened," he explained to Roth in a 1988 interview, "they are already formed, and time has kneaded them and given them shape. To write things as they happened means to enslave oneself to memory, which is only a minor element in the creative process."

Still, as Appelfeld confessed in a rare autobiographical essay that appeared in The New Yorker in 1998, "the village lay within me." So, with an Israeli television crew in tow, he reluctantly returned and confronted local residents with questions about the location of the mass grave where his mother is buried. At first, they feigned ignorance. Then, in a flash of guilt and frustration, they relented and pointed in its direction.

"It seemed that, even though no Jews remained [in Czernowitz], their spirits wandered about everywhere, and must be appeased," Appelfeld wrote.

And the villagers were not alone. Appelfeld, too, needed to appease those spirits. A year after his New Yorker essay, The Story of a Life was published in Israel. Now, five years later, it has finally been translated from its original Hebrew into English.

It is a typically elliptical rendering of his life. This is not the breathless adventure story suggested by the book's dust-jacket copy, where overwrought phrases like "extraordinary survival and rebirth" impose a narrative arc that doesn't exist except in the minds of Oprah-influenced marketers. Instead, Appelfeld provides a series of wonderfully written and compelling vignettes interspersed with meditations on the difficulty of remembering. He gives us a boyhood home where there is "more quiet than talking," and he gives us the camp not at all. (There is a camp, and it is gruesome, but is it Appelfeld's? He doesn't say.) There are also a few heartbreaking glimpses of the ghetto, where, he tells us, "children and madmen were friends."

Appelfeld vividly writes about the dangers and difficulties of being a postwar refugee, and about the trauma of losing German -- his mother tongue in a literal sense, its sound painfully reminding him of his own mother -- to Hebrew. There are excerpts from his diaries, as well as a recounting of his Israeli army years and his start as a writer.

Only a little more than a page is devoted to the two-month-long march from the ghetto to the Nazi camp. But what a page.

While the sky is still dark, the soldiers wake up the convoy with whippings and shootings. Father grabs my hand and pulls me up. The mud is deep, and I cannot feel any solid ground beneath it. I'm still drowsy from sleep, and my fear is dulled. "It hurts me!" I call out. Father hears my cry and responds instantly, "Make it easier for me, make it easier."

I've heard those words often. After them come a dreadful collapse and the futile attempts to save a child who has drowned. Not only children drown in the mud; even tall people sink into it, fall to their knees, and drown. Spring is melting the snows, and with every passing day the mud gets deeper. Father opens his knapsack and tosses some of the clothes into the mud. Now his hand holds mine with great strength. At night he rubs my arms and legs and wipes them with the lining of his coat, and for a moment it seems to me that not only my father is with me, but also my mother, whom I loved so much.

From this memoir, however, you won't learn that 200 Jews, including Appelfeld and his father, began that march, while only 30 survived. He is interested not in facts but in memories. "I've already written more than twenty books about those years," he writes, "but sometimes it seems as though I haven't yet begun to describe them."

The problem, he suggests over and over again, has to do with language. How many writers, and especially writers as prolific as Appelfeld, will admit suspicion of any "fluent stream of words"? "I prefer stuttering," he writes, "for in stuttering I hear the friction and the disquiet, the effort to purge impurities from the words, the desire to offer something from inside you. Smooth, fluent sentences leave me with a feeling of uncleanness, of order that hides emptiness."

His memories, he explains, are stored not in language, but in his body.

I don't remember entering the forest, but I do remember the moment when I stood before a tree laden with red apples. I was so astonished that I took a few steps back. More than my conscious mind does, my body seems to remember those steps backward. If ever I make a wrong movement, or unexpectedly stumble backward, I see the tree with the red apples. It had been two days since any food had passed my lips, and here was a tree full of apples. I could have put out my hand and picked them, but I just stood in wonderment, and the longer I stood there, the deeper the silence that took root in me.

Like the dreams that are his novels, there is often little to moor these vignettes in time. And, unlike in his New Yorker essay, he almost entirely ignores important episodes like his mother's death. "I didn't see her die, but I did hear her one and only scream," he writes, leaving it at that. The anticlimax is devastating.

"I do not pretend to be a messenger, a chronicler of the war, or a know-it-all," Appelfeld says, arguing that, for him anyway, history is no more than fodder for literature. "Literature is an enduring present -- not in a journalistic sense, but as an attempt to bring time into an ongoing present."

An early reviewer of The Story of a Life complains that some of its "literary stuff gets tedious; it's the memories through the eyes of a child that are the drama here." They're not the drama, though. Not really. The drama comes from witnessing an old man desperately (his word) confronting the demons of his life and of history: He feints. He retreats. He blurs. He is at once candid and frustratingly evasive. Writing is his calling, but time and again he disparages words in favor of silence. "In the ghetto and in the camp," he says, "only people who had lost their minds talked, explained, or tried to persuade. Those who were sane didn't speak."

And those who did speak were often confused. The mentally ill, the ones released from their institutions and into the ghetto to play with the children, wore looks on their faces, Appelfeld recalls, that seemed to say, "All these years you laughed at us for mixing things up, confusing things, confusing time; we weren't precise, we called places and things by strange names. But now it's clear that we were right."

About what?

About how unbelievable the world really is. That's the word that Appelfeld finally lands on, as he tells his story to a friend's son.

"And so it was, unbelievable," he writes. "Whenever you speak about those days, you are gripped by a sense of how unbelievable it all is. You relate it, but you don't believe that this thing actually happened to you. This is one of the most shameful feelings that I know." | October 2004


Brendan Wolfe is a freelance writer from Davenport, Iowa.