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.

Growing up during the last years before the Holocaust, Bruno, a Jewish boy in an...

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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 that waits at the end of Book One, the train the vendor knows is waiting even before he is told. The reader knows where the train is going and knows the consequences, but he cannot pity these Austrian Jews, who are as enmeshed in hating as their eventual oppressors. On that opening train, an express, the reader is more startled than the child narrator by an unscheduled halt on a side railing. All Jews are invited to step into a convenient barn where they will register their Jewishness. Some comply with good spirits, unashamed. Others go unwillingly but not yet willing to hide. Some stay in their seats. Most are outraged by the government; vows are made to complain to the highest levels. Still they register. Bruno and his mother register. It is the beginning of the end.

Throughout there is absurd, Kafkaesque terror. Fathers fight with rabbis; rabbis betray their people. Sons put fathers away in filthy rest homes, trying to hide their inherited Jewishness. Sisters convert to Christianity, go insane, die, and are buried in inaccessible Christian cemeteries. Over it all, the father, Bruno’s father, dominates and focuses the scenes of Book One. He can, without any seeming awareness of his own absurdity, curse the Jews, saying that they infest “Austria like rats.” On the train to visit Dauber, that same father first denies his blood; forced to admit he is a Jew, he claims that at least he is not a merchant. His accuser says: “And what about the Jewish merchants; shouldn’t they be exterminated?” The father is outraged: “Take note, please, the man is speaking of extermination.” Yet earlier at home the same father has said: “Jewish entrepreneurs should be wiped off the face of the earth. They ruin everything.” Perhaps he is speaking only figuratively, but his words ring, ironic and terrifying, throughout the novel. No, Appelfeld does not write about the Holocaust, and yet he writes about nothing else. Here are the mind-sets that brought on the horror. Here are the Jewish intellectuals who are just as responsible as the oppressors. They twist and bite upon themselves like weasels fighting in dark holes.

At home, Bruno is witness to the worst kind of intellectual anti-Semitism; on the night-rushing trains carrying him on various fruitless journeys, he encounters the brutal, know-nothing anti-Semitism which will bring on the death camps, the anti-Semitism which makes no distinction between assimilated Jew and true believer. Belief simply has nothing to do with the situation. Amid the train trips, Bruno remarks, “to me it all seemed like a bad dream.” There are many bad dreams in The Age of Wonders. Dr. Mirzel, the Jewish doctor at Baden, can write an essay called “The Destruction of Judaism—Relief and Recovery.” Uncle Lumpel attacks Kafka as a swindler, a purveyor of bad dreams. He is right about the bad dreams, but the intellectual Jews swindle themselves. A cousin has written an attack on Judaism as “a religion without divine grace.” Uncle Salo is little concerned with the problem, for he is too busy with his non-Jewish mistress upon whom he fathers an illegitimate child. Ironically, the bastard girl is all of Uncle Salo that survives the final solution: she has only his fingers, as Bruno remarks thirty years later.

Family life is everywhere in the novel. Appelfeld has said that Jewishness is a history of the family; the history here is not a heroic one. The father so dominates Bruno and his mother that they have no life of their own. A prominent novelist and man of letters, he is deeply embroiled in Austrian intellectual life between the wars; his involvement with committees, organizations, periodicals, and petty law suits leaves him little time for the son who grows up in his shadow. He bankrupts the family with lavish entertaining, and then, on the eve of the Holocaust, abandons them to go to Vienna, where he helps reestablish the literary salon of Baroness, whose lover he becomes. Bruno and his mother never see him again. The Jewish mother’s last words to the father are: “Take your raincoat.” The hard rain is about to fall; raincoats will be of little use. Bruno is puzzled: Expelled from school without any reason given, he is made painfully aware of his Jewishness any time he is outside the house. The rabbi, however, refuses him his Bar Mitzvah, for his family are not true believers. Like the other families who thought themselves assimilated, Bruno and his mother find that they are Jews to everyone but the Jews.

Book II opens thirty years after the Holocaust; from Jerusalem, Bruno returns to the village about his father’s business. Revived interest in prewar fiction has prompted a publisher to contact the son. Still the father haunts the son. When he hears a stranger ask, “How far is it from here to Knospen?,” he hears his father’s voice. Bruno is not sure why he has come back. His three-week stay seems pointless to him and the reader, for nothing is done about his father’s literary estate. The point, of course, is his awareness of his identity and its link with the past. Bruno discovers that “nothing has changed”: his father and his prewar life are “the wound that never healed”; his survival has not left him whole.

Point of view shifts radically in Book II from a first-person narrator to third-person limited omniscient. The shift is symbolic. In Book One, the world is seen through the eyes of a child just as the assimilated Jews were childlike in their inability to recognize the demon outside the door. In Book Two, understanding has improved. Bruno is better equipped to see what happened to his family and the Jews of Austria. The Holocaust has removed forever the blinders from those prewar years.

Bruno’s understanding comes in stages. As he arrives, he is still chagrined to be first identified as a Jew by another Jew on the train. In Knospen, he first thinks, “The place hasn’t changed, but the people evidently have.” In a series of scenes out of Kafka, he is made aware that the people are as little changed as is the structure of the village. In the old café where once the intellectuals gathered, only the coffee remains. Bruno spends his evenings in a bar where the Singapore midgets perform their sweaty routine in blue uniforms, and Brunhilda, the singer known as Hill, tempts him to liaisons that are never fulfilled. Here he meets the “mongrels”—the half-breed Jews who were children in 1940. They revel in their thin Jewish blood in a cult manner that sickens Bruno. His Uncle Salo’s illegitimate daughter is among them. Bruno calls the scene “cues in a nightmare.” No one in the village wants to remember him except Louise, who once was a servant in his house and who since has turned to prostitution, grown old, fat, and greasy.

No one wants to remember the pre-Holocaust days or the Jews who were its victims and its collaborators. The buildings and houses, shops and park have not changed. Austria has not changed. “Objects survive longer; they are passive.” Bruno, who begins passive, moves by increments to unfocused anger. When Brum, once a family friend, refuses to recognize him, Bruno resorts to violence. A thin trickle of blood flows over Brum’s mustache. “I hate you,” he tells Bruno. He has always hated Jews. He tells Bruno not to stir up the past, as if it were really past. Nothing has changed. The wound has not healed. The dead father still dominates the son, whose own marriage has failed in the father’s shadow. Neither Knospen nor Jerusalem is home. Bruno remains unassimilated, the victim still of identity denied. For the last time, he boards the train to leave, “empty of thought or feeling.”


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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 75

Sources for Further Study

Agee, Joel. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI (December 27, 1981), pp. 1, 20.

Alvarez, A. Review in The New York Review of Books. XXIX (February 4, 1982), pp. 33-34.

Booklist. LXXVIII, January 1, 1982, p. 585.

Lewis, Stephen. Art out of Agony, 1984.

Library Journal. CVI, December 15, 1981, p. 2405.

Prescott, P.S. Review in Newsweek. CXCVIII (December 14, 1981), p. 108.

Publishers Weekly. CCXX, November 6, 1981, p. 69.

Saturday Review. VIII, November, 1981, p. 77.

Time. CXVIII, December 28, 1981, p. 69.

Village Voice Literary Supplement. December, 1981, p. 18.

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