Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 617
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 attacked in a sequence of journalistic articles calling his characters neither urban nor rural Austrians but, instead, “Jews who...were now useless, corrupt, perverted; parasites living off the healthy Austrian tradition.” The critic himself turns out to be Jewish; unexpectedly, he dies soon.
The father thereupon adopts the same line of scurrilous anti-Semitism. He denounces the Jewish bourgeoisie as grossly materialistic; he claims that Jewish entrepreneurs should be wiped off the earth. He tries to become more Austrian than the Gentiles, flourishes his assimilationist views, and frantically curses the Jews who are “infesting Austria like rats, infesting the whole world, to tell the truth.” The father drifts into madness as he writes pamphlets excoriating the Jewish petite bourgeoisie. Eventually he abandons his wife and son, fleeing to a Gentile, aristocratic mistress in Vienna. The son is expelled from school; later, mother and son are rounded up for a final journey on a “cattle train hurtling south.”
Book 2 is subtitled, “Many Years Later When Everything Was Over.” About thirty years have passed. The novel now shifts to the third person, with Bruno, the now-adult son, returning to his native town. His parents perished in the Holocaust. He has returned to his birthplace to confront its shame and affirm his identity. For several weeks he wanders in and out of the town’s inns, streets, taverns, restaurants. He encounters several living relics from his boyhood. Some are partly Jewish, such as the singer Brunhilda. Louise, formerly a pretty maid who worked for Bruno’s parents and was one of his uncle’s mistresses, is now a worn-out, flabby, embittered old woman, who stereotypes Jews in a curiously positive fashion: “No Jew would take a pitchfork to a woman’s thighs. Jews love women.”
Most significant is Bruno’s encounter with a former Jewish bachelor, Brum, who married his Gentile housekeeper, became a cattle farmer, wholly denied his Judaism, and survived the war. At first, the crippled, embittered Brum refuses Bruno’s attempts at recognition. A short while later, he spews out hatred at Bruno. After several weeks, he tells him to leave town: “My hatred for Jews knows no bounds.” Bruno hits him but finds that the blow does not reduce his despair. The next day he leaves, “empty of thought or feeling.”