Unto the Soul

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

As in previous novels, including For Every Sin (1989), The Healer (1990), and The Immortal Bartfuss (1988), Aharon Appelfeld uses Unto the Soul to explore the drama of Jewishness. The question the novel seems to be most concerned with is, What happens to Jews when they are isolated from their community? This is what happens to Gad, a Jew in his early thirties from Zhadova in the Western Ukraine, who becomes the caretaker of the Cemetery of the Martyrs when his Uncle Arieh, who had the post for many years, dies. The martyrs were the victims of a pogrom, and their cemetery is on a mountaintop, isolated from even the Ruthenian villages below. Only in the spring and summer do Jewish pilgrims arrive to honor the dead and listen to their elders preach. Only Gad’s younger sister Amalia, who lives with him in the house Arieh left them, and occasional trips to a nearby village for supplies and sex save Gad from the loneliness that fall and winter impose on the mountain.

The stark routine of Gad and Amalia’s life and the round of the seasons frame what little plot the novel has. While Amalia does the cooking and housework, Gad tends the cow, the dogs Mauzy and Limzy, the garden, and the graves. Because Gad and Amalia are separated from the Jewish community they came from, this routine makes them little different from the non-Jewish peasants who are their neighbors. Especially during the winter, they drink large amounts of slivovitz, which leads them to reminisce about their unhappy past and wrestle with the meaning of their fading lives.

Their parents owned a grocery store in Zhadova. The store did not do well, and when Gad and Amalia left their unpromising jobs as a lumberyard worker and a housekeeper to take it over after their parents died, it failed. Their mother had hated Amalia and punished her for her prettiness and expressive imagination, and their father had been too weak-willed to stabilize the emotions in the family. It might be said that Amalia and Gad’s inability to thrive in either their family or their community prepared them for exile, which they play out as they tend the remote dead.

Gad and Amalia’s past enlivens the plot with such anecdotes as Amalia’s refusal, when she was eighteen, to marry a rich youth in love with business. “For weeks the house rumbled like a seething pot” with her mother’s anger because of this.

Several developments in the plot arrive to save the reader from sinking too far into the brutal melancholy that infects the main characters. For example, a Jewish peddler appears by surprise one day at the house on the mountain. “He spoke as peddlers speak, mixing truth and wishful thinking, making things up about places and people.” This is entertaining, whereas when Gad and Amalia do these things, it is depressing. The peddler assures them that the world is as “rotten” as it was before, and his cynicism extends to religion and to Gad and Amalia’s “right” to be where they are. He leaves them with the disheartening notion that trust and faith are meaningless in an ungenerous world.

It seems that only drink stands between the siblings and despair, when the most telling plot development in the novel occurs. On the basis of their secret affection for each other since childhood, and because of their isolation from the ritual and even the ethics of Judaism, Gad and Amalia become lovers. This begins with Gad caressing and kissing his sister’s foot and ends with his mouth traveling “the entire length of her body.” As for Amalia, “she didn’t even move when he sank his teeth in her neck.” Indeed, nothing Jewish defines this new relationship between them but a vaguely cruel and at times exuberant animalism, as when “with a very powerful movement [Gad] hugged and then subdued her.” The dogs Mauzy and Limzy figure in this unrefined sexuality, for Amalia likes to sleep w ith them on the floor and Gad is jealous of them.

By the time the sun returns, introducing spring, and the pilgrims arrive, reminding Gad of his duty to the cemetery,...

(The entire section is 1671 words.)