The Fifth Son describes a journey into the past, a pilgrimage that leads the narrator, the son of Holocaust survivors, to an understanding of his father. Although written from the narrator’s point of view, the novel has three other voices: Reuven Tamiroff, the narrator’s father, whose reminiscences and letters provide glimpses of a tortured man; Bontchek, another survivor, whose recollections reveal more about Reuven; and Simha-the-Dark, also a survivor, who finally unlocks Reuven’s past.
The novel begins with the narrator’s dream; in Reshastadt, he sees his father, who tells him that the trip to Germany is a mistake. The dream fades, and the narrator begins to piece together twenty years of reminiscences about his attempts to understand his father’s silence.
As the narrator assembles the vignettes about his life, he remembers his father as silent and his mother as an unhappy woman who withdrew into a private world when he was only six. He is reminded of a Passover during which Simha demanded that Reuven remember his duty to the living. Simha then told the folktale about the four sons and The Question. The first son knows and assumes The Question, the second knows and rejects it, the third is indifferent to it, and the fourth is ignorant of it. The fifth son, not mentioned in the tale, is gone.
Few vignettes involve Reuven’s descriptions of his own life, but the narrator recalls that Bontchek “brought to life . . . an entire society with its heroes and villains, its giants and its dwarfs.” He particularly remembered the sadistic Nazi called The Angel and recalled The Angel’s murder of fifty men, an act that the survivors protested by going on strike. In retaliation, The Angel executed half of the Jewish Council, sparing Simha and Reuven. Intermittently, the narrator analyzes his relationship with Lisa, a banker’s daughter whom he met in a philosophy class. He recounts his seduction by Lisa, his obsession with her sensuality, her frenetic existence, and her political activism. Simha completes Reuven’s story by remembering the shooting of more than two hundred people (among them, Simha’s wife, Hanna) for defying The Angel’s orders that they pray in public so that he could prove that God did not hear them. Several men swore that if they survived the war, they would execute The Angel.
Throughout The Fifth Son are Reuven’s secret letters to an absent son named Ariel. In them, Reuven questions God and existence and reveals his remorse at the deaths of his fellow councillors. (He admits that he feels responsible because he supported the strike.) Finally, he tells Ariel that he and several others found The Angel after the war and killed him. Reuven confides that he and Simha are still disturbed by their action; revenge is the sole topic of their monthly discussions. He wonders how he would have acted in different circumstances.
The narrator eventually remembers his discovery of the Ariel letters, his reading of the letter in which Reuven relived Ariel’s last day. The letter contained Reuven’s cry to Ariel: “That night you left us, you were six years old; you are still six years old.” Ariel, son of Reuven and Regina, was tortured to death by The Angel. Obsessed with Ariel, the narrator attempted to learn everything about The Angel and finally discovered that The Angel, still alive, became Wolfgang Berger, a businessman and a respected citizen of Reshastadt. In his own attempt at revenge, the narrator traveled to Reshastadt, but the encounter between former Nazi and survivors’ son was anticlimactic: The narrator could only tell Berger who he was and threaten Berger with the curse of the dead. Assassination was impossible.
Years later, the narrator ends his quest with a meditation on his life. He has assimilated his father’s lost years and Ariel’s lost life into his own existence; he has finally connected with his father. His life has purpose and form but no meaning: “When,” he asks, “yes, when,...
(The entire section is 1,555 words.)