The Age of Wonders
Aharon Appelfeld is a survivor, which, as Mark Twain predicted in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), has become a cardinal virtue in the twentieth century—The Age of Wonders, as Appelfeld ironically calls it.
Growing up during the last years before the Holocaust, Bruno, a Jewish boy in an Austrian village, is a naïve observer of assimilated Jews trying desperately to deny their racial identity, of intellectual Jews trying desperately to be Austrian. Elsewhere, Appelfeld has said, “It is terrible to deny one’s identity.” This denial and recognition of identity is the core of his novel, which is written in two books. Book One ends with the sentence: “By the next day we were on the cattle train hurtling south.” Book Two is entitled: “Many Years Later When Everything Was Over.” “Everything” refers to the Holocaust. Appelfeld leaves it out, however, assuming that the reader knows enough to compensate for the ambiguity. Ernest Hemingway said that a writer could leave out those things he knew best and sometimes the story would be stronger for it; if he left out what he did not know, the omission would appear as a hole in his work, flawing it irreparably. In The Age of Wonders, the omission works as smoothly as any jump-cut ever filmed.
Appelfeld’s knowledge of the Holocaust is drawn from firsthand experience. Born in Czernovitz, Bukovina, in 1932, he was eight years old when the Nazi army swept east. His mother was killed. The boy was sent to a work camp from which he escaped. On his own throughout the war that ravaged eastern Europe, Appelfeld survived in the forests, wandering with other runaways, sometimes working on farms, always hiding his Jewish identity. In 1944, he was caught up in the Russian Army as it pushed west where he worked in a field kitchen during the last days of the war. Always light on his feet, he made his way into Italy where camps of surviving Jews were being established. He chose instead to live off the beaches in the company of boys his age—road boys, boys of the sort that Jack London described in America almost a century earlier. By 1946, at the age of fourteen, Appelfeld had made his way to Israel where he served in the Israeli army, married, fathered three children, and began to write his novels in Hebrew. Not until 1980 did Americans get their first look at his work when Badenheim 1939 (1980) was translated into English. At present, his publisher, Godine, plans to have the bulk of his work translated over the next several years. When the entire corpus is available, American readers will have the complete picture of a remarkable contemporary writer: a witness to the soul’s dark night that seems the epitome of this “age of wonders.”
He is not, Appelfeld insists, a Holocaust writer. Indeed, if one turns to either of these first two novels expecting patient, heroic Jews undergoing the death-camp struggles, one will be disappointed. If one expects to find another indictment of the German mind that brought on the final solution, one will be outraged. Appelfeld’s Jews are not heroic; his Austrians, no more prejudiced than the Jews themselves. These Austrian Jews, he has said, “could not see the demons that surrounded them.” They thought themselves to be assimilated, to be Austrian, no longer Jews. Grandparents knew the horror that waited, knew it in their bones, knew it from the pogroms of old, but they could not tell that generation. Hatred flows through The Age of Wonders like an open sewer, spreading its infection. Intellectual Jews hate the Jewish merchant class; the non-Jews hate all Jews, intellectuals and merchants. The mistake that Bruno’s parents make is to think that they are no longer Jews, that their heritage can be denied. They think that the Austrians can tell the difference between true believers and intellectual converts. By the time they learn differently, it is too late. The trains are already rattling south.
Appelfeld has said that Franz Kafka liberated him. The Age of Wonders is testament to that liberation. Kafkaesque scenes trouble and haunt the novel with a delicacy that marks Appelfeld as a true stylist. Kafka is there, but Appelfeld has made him his own. When he discovered that tortured writer, Appelfeld realized that Kafka had experienced the Jewish pains and horrors before the Holocaust. Adapting Kafka’s techniques to his own métier and materials, Appelfeld gets remarkable results from understated events. The novel opens on a train and closes on a train as Bruno leaves the old village for the last time. Between those two trains, trains proliferate: there is the train that carries the boy back and forth from his summer vacations with his mother; the train that takes the family to bury the dead; the train that takes them on an ill-fated visit with the father’s college classmate, Dauber; and that barely noted train that takes the Jews south in a cattle car. Trains, one remembers from Albert Einstein’s comparison, distort time and space if they move at the speed of light. In The Age of Wonders they move at the speed at which a thirteen-year-old boy can think and remember; that too can distort time and space, values and sensibilities.
As a boy, Bruno sees and hears the world about him, but does not understand it all. The reader, however, understands, and therein lies the irony that pervades the novel. Every action, every word is measured against that train...
(The entire section is 2234 words.)