The Age of Wonders

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2234

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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 2309 words.)

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