To the Land of the Cattails Essay - Critical Essays

Aharon Appelfeld

Critical Context

To the Land of the Cattails is representative of Appelfeld’s “hopeful” work, which began with Tor-ha-pela’ot (1978; The Age of Wonders, 1981) and includes Kutonet veha-pasim (1983; Tzili: The Story of a Life, 1983). The hopeful work is characterized by the presence of youth and by the indication that the return to home and to tradition and the finding of the true secrets of Jewishness permit the survival of youth into the post-Holocaust period. An interesting difference between To the Land of the Cattails and the other two noted above is the absence of a post-Holocaust epilogue. Yet Appelfeld leaves the reader with the unmistakable hope that Rudi and Arna, young, vigorous, and secure in their Jewishness, will somehow survive the ensuing Holocaust years and share what they have learned with a future generation. It is almost as if the author, emulating the films of the 1980’s, has left an opening for a sequel.

To the Land of the Cattails also is noteworthy in its stronger echoes of the images and motifs of the earlier novels. Travel, used effectively, but as an incidental motif in earlier novels, becomes a major theme here, pervading the entire novel and leading almost hypnotically to the other grotesque travel image, the Holocaust train. The forest is used not only as a symbol of refuge but also as a signal of the coming of peace and as an interlude of safe haven. Rudi and Arna are epitomes of the abandoned child, and Toni is the lost mother of Appelfeld’s earlier works. The theme of intermarriage, for the first time, is tied to the protagonist in an Appelfeld novel, and the ugly father image is attached to the Gentile male spouse. Although the author is slightly kinder in his portrayal of prewar Jewish society than he is in other works, a somewhat negative portrayal persists. In this novel, Appelfeld upholds his reputation as a chronicler of the Holocaust who studiously avoids its mention while brilliantly forcing the reader to think his own haunted thoughts about that period.