The Age of Wonders

by Aharon Appelfeld
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 571

The Age of Wonders is a chilling, plangent, remorselessly pessimistic study of Jewish self-denial, self-estrangement, self-hatred; of flawed human beings pushed into tight corners of base self-betrayal by motives and events whose enormity overwhelms description. Appelfeld’s strategy, as a writer haunted by the Holocaust, is to dwell on its historical margins: either its prelude, as in this novel’s book 1, or its aftermath, as in book 2. To deal directly with the twentieth century’s most appalling horror would be, he told an interviewer from The New York Times in 1986, “like looking at the naked sun on a clear summer day. You couldn’t stand the temperature. You can never understand the meaning of the Holocaust. You can just come to the edges of it. If you wrote about it directly, you’d end up trivializing it.”

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Everything in The Age of Wonders sooner or later finds its place in the context of anti-Semitism, with its resulting divisions and self-hatred among Jews. The first of several train scenes is paradigmatic of the overriding theme. As the coach comes to a halt in the middle of nowhere, with all “non-Austrian” passengers ordered to register their Jewishness, a varied lot of passengers descends into the night. A few comply forthrightly, particularly a loud, fat, cheerful, laughing woman who proclaims: “That means me! A Jewish born and bred!” A paralyzed boy is told by his nurse that the regulation applies only to healthy Jews—not to him; resolutely, he insists on registering. A diplomat’s snobbish wife wants him to lodge a complaint against the procedure and assails the laughing woman for her “Jewish vulgarity.” A refined baroness quietly registers. Bruno absorbs all of this with sorrowful fascination. What matters more than authorities identifying Jews is Jews identifying and either accepting or, mostly, rejecting one another.

Anti-Semitism spreads like a contagious disease, with Appelfeld often using train scenes to carry and publicize it. In the first of his novels to be translated into English, Badenheim, ’ir nofesh (1975; Badenheim 1939, 1980), the final paragraph abruptly moves previously comfortable resort guests to a freight train headed east, presumably to a Polish concentration camp. Not only do train journeys open and close The Age of Wonders, but also Bruno’s mother makes weekly train trips to visit her schizophrenic younger sister, Theresa, temporarily settled in a sanatorium. On yet another train journey, Theresa, accompanying the family, drags them from their compartment in the middle of the night, searching the countryside for a church in which she, now a feverish Christian convert, can pray. When the family later hears of Theresa’s death in a convent, the only available train to her funeral service is a local cattle run. As the family prepares to board it, a station guard calls out, “Austrian horses smell better than Jews.”

The harshest dramatization of the gap between Jews also occurs in a railway station. The family notices a tightly huddled group of people dressed in black and striped garments, greedily gulping down sandwiches. The mother whispers, “Jews”; the father remarks, “Lately they’ve been appearing in droves”; for Bruno, this is his first sight of Ostjuden, Eastern European Jews. “They seemed chained to each other, even while eating. There was no glory in their nocturnal appearance.” The image not only prefigures their actual enchainment-to-come but also highlights Central European Jews’ haughty self-distancing from the alien and parochial manners of Polish or Russian Jews.

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