Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 433

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Aharon Appelfeld is himself a survivor of the Holocaust whose doom haunts his fiction. Born in Czernowitz, Bukovina (then Romanian, now within the Soviet Union), he was eight when the invading Germans sent him to a labor camp in 1940. His mother was killed; his father died in the camp; in 1941, the boy managed to escape into the inhospitable countryside, working as a shepherd and farm laborer for three years, hiding his identity from hunters of Jews, growing up without a proper adolescence. After the armistice, he made his way to Italy with a small tide of refugees, and from there emigrated to Palestine in 1946. Though he knew no Hebrew before the age of fourteen, he writes exclusively in his adopted language. His published works in Israel include six collections of stories, eight novels, and one book of essays.

Neither The Age of Wonders nor Appelfeld’s other fiction directly alludes to the Holocaust’s monstrous reality of deaths almost beyond reckoning. The horrors to come or just ended are a baleful flickering on the horizon of his muted, compressed, austerely understated perspective. His artistic strategy is to produce fiction whose structure, imagery, tone, and voice all meditate somberly on the precarious course of contemporary Judaism. He struggles unblinkingly with the culture of self-rejection to which all too many Jews succumbed in Central and Western Europe. In his flat, controlled, lucidly neutral prose, never thundering or moralizing, he presents scenes that pass a scorching judgment on the spiritual and psychological meanness of Jewish assimilation to and humiliation before a dominant Gentile society.

Like Gustave Flaubert, he flays his Bouvards and Pecuchets for their banal and narcotized acceptance of irrational hatreds. Like Marcel Proust, he depicts bizarre social snobbery and status-scoring, evasiveness, betrayal, and scapegoating. Like Franz Kafka, he ponders whether being Jewish is an incurable affliction. Appelfeld’s art lacks the intensity, range, and imaginative power of these masters, but he shares with them the honesty of refusing to accept any easy solutions to basic problems of cultural separation and misunderstanding.

The Age of Wonders has its share of aesthetic flaws: The shift in point of view, from the first person in book 1 to the third person in book 2, is needlessly confusing; the number of minor characters is too profuse for a short novel; and the second part, amounting to an extended coda, is too long and dimly focused. Nevertheless, this novel is a noble achievement expressing eloquent grief at man’s capacity for cruelty and victimization. Appelfeld bears tragic witness to a chapter in human history for which no explanations can adequately account.