The Immortal Bartfuss
Aharon Appelfeld is a survivor of the Holocaust whose writing is stamped by a melancholy sense of the doom he managed to elude. Born in Chernovtsy, Bukovina (then Rumanian, now within the Soviet Union), he was eight when the invading Germans sent him to a labor camp in 1940. There both of his parents died, but the boy managed in 1941 to escape into the inhospitable countryside, working as a shepherd and farm helper for three years, hiding his identity from hunters of Jews. In 1944 he became a field cook for the Soviet army. After the armistice he made his way to Italy with a small tide of refugees, and from there he migrated to what was then called Palestine. Appelfeld made a home on the outskirts of Jerusalem with his Argentine-born wife, two sons, and one daughter. His works are written in his adopted Hebrew, which, he has said in interviews, encourages a sparse, compact, elliptical style.
Appelfeld has published novels, story collections, and one book of essays. The Immortal Bartfuss is his sixth novel to be published in the United States. His best-known translated work is Badenheim, ’ir nofesh (1975; Badenheim 1939, 1980), literally “Badenheim, resort town” in Hebrew. Badenheim is a Jewish summer resort near Vienna, where visitors indulge themselves in rich food, idle conversation, and the usual vacation romances. The local sanitation department, however, begins to darken the communal climate by registering all vacationers and preparing their genealogies. The book’s final paragraph grimly moves Badenheim’s Jews to a freight train headed east while a Panglossian impresario continues to assert his faith in a rational and benevolent world.
In Tor-ha-pela’ot (1978; The Age of Wonders, 1981), the Holocaust again overtakes a group of bourgeois, assimilated, unwary Jews in an isolated Austrian town—and again Appelfeld makes no explicit reference to such historic events as Adolf Hitler’s Anschluss, which annexed Austria to Germany. Indeed he refrains, here as in his other fiction, from any direct allusion to contemporaneous history. As in a Kafka text the overpowering ordeal descends inexplicably, irrationally, irresistibly. The Age of Wonders is a chillingly pessimistic study of Jewish self-denial, self-estrangement, and self-hatred, with secular Central European Jews denying their Judaic culture and despising their pious Eastern European brethren.
Kutonet veha-pasim (1983; Tzili: The Story of a Life, 1983) is a simpler tale than the first two, with the protagonist’s wanderings an approximate outline of Appelfeld’s own during and after World War II. Tzili is a slow-witted Eastern European girl who is abandoned by her impoverished Jewish family when they flee the Germans. Mistaken as the bastard daughter of a Gentile whore, she manages to survive excruciating hardships. Appelfeld here writes a bleak folktale depicting the endurance of the simpleton with animal strength as opposed to the destruction of self-conscious intellection.
In Nesiga mislat (1984; The Retreat, 1985), Appelfeld returns to the provincial Austria of the late 1930’s. A middle-aged actress, Lotte Schloss, is dismissed by her theatrical company for being Jewish; she retreats to her daughter’s home, only to find her Christian son-in-law hostile and her daughter docile to his wishes. What further refuge? Lotte heads for a place called The Retreat, an old mountaintop hotel near Vienna which invites aging Jews for lessons in adjusting to a Gentile society, promising the painless eradication of Jewish accents and traits. The novel concludes flatly and forebodingly, with the reader aware that European Jewry’s encounter with tragic history is about to reach its apocalypse. A retreat, after all, is no escape.
To the Land of the Cattails (1986) is set in Appelfeld’s native province of Bukovina, near the Ukraine. The coprotagonists are Toni, a beautiful but self-centered thirty-four-year-old Jewess, and her sensitive, adolescent son, Rudi. The divorced, promiscuous mother journeys eastward with her half-Gentile son to her rural homeland. Yet they never complete their return. They find Jews murdered and uprooted along way stations, with...
(The entire section is 1749 words.)