(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Book 1, the longer of the novel’s two parts, begins in 1938 on a train carrying a twelve-year-old boy, who serves as narrator and central consciousness, and his mother back to their hometown in provincial Austria. They had been vacationing in an unnamed retreat, quiet, little-known, beautifully located on a lovely riverbank. Mother and son were expelled from this apparent Eden. Aboard the train, the boy recalls, “the feeling that we were doomed seeped through me like a thick liquid.”

Suddenly, the express train makes an unscheduled stop at a sawmill, far from any station. Politely yet ominously, “all foreign passengers and all Austrian passengers who were not Christians by birth” are requested to register with the “security forces.” Why? The only official explanation is evasive: “Due to the special circumstances.” Evidently, the Anschluss of March, 1938, has engulfed Austria within Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Yet Aharon Appelfeld refrains here, as in his other fiction, from direct allusion to historic events. All the boy can be sure of is that “nothing would be the same again.”

He finds his parents and their friends arguing obsessively about the nature and destiny of Jews and Judaism as anti-Semitic stresses, both upon and within them, increase. The boy’s father is a famous Austrian writer, called, in Kafkaesque fashion, “A.,” who is an intimate of such distinguished authors as Stefan Zweig and Arthur Schnitzler. The father’s lofty reputation is venomously...

(The entire section is 617 words.)