Israel: war wounds

I have a confession to make: I suffer from World War II novel fatigue. There are so many heart-rending, moving and harrowing books set during the years 1939-45 (as well as plenty of not so heart-rending, moving and harrowing ones) that a story in this category has to promise something out of the ordinary to persuade me to pick it up.

So when I heard that the Israeli novel on the 2012 shortlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was a war novel, I was pretty uninspired. If it hadn’t been for some very enthusiastic comments by members of the judging panel at the London Book Fair, I wouldn’t have given it a second look.

However the premise of Aharon Appelfeld’s novel, which is told from the perspective of an 11-year-old Jewish boy who seeks refuge in a Ukrainian brothel and enters into a sexual relationship with the prostitute who hides him, sounded intriguing. And when it beat the other contenders to the prize, I decided I had to find out whether this book, written by a Holocaust survivor, had something new to say about the events that ultimately led to Israel’s independence.

This is a novel that jumps in and out of the future tense. Starting on the eve of the boy Hugo’s birthday as his mother anticipates their impending separation, the narrative carries a strong sense of foreboding. This works partly through the dramatic irony that comes from the reader’s knowledge of subsequent historical events. Significantly, however, Appelfeld’s descriptions are so subtle and fresh that, were it not for the novel’s marketing, the reader might not even realise that this is a novel set during the war until several chapters in.

This freshness sets the characters free from the accumulated literary baggage of decades of war literature, giving Appelfeld the leeway to present them as individuals first. He does this by foregrounding details in language that is often disarming in its simplicity – the scene where Hugo says goodbye to his mother while trying to keep her for another minute then another, for example, is very touching.

The power of plain language becomes something of a theme in the book, with the prostitute Mariana telling Hugo at one point that ‘a spare way of speaking can also be colourful’. It’s a shame that Appelfeld doesn’t adhere to this when it comes to Hugo’s letters to his mother, which, full of phrases such as ‘the place is feverish’ and ‘in my heart I know that most of the fears are groundless’, have an odd ring to them. Whether these expressions are attempts on Appelfeld’s part to capture the pomposity of intelligent youth or instances of awkward translation, they jar against the subtle immediacy of the rest of the text.

The setting of the novel is very simple too, with much of the action taking place in Mariana’s room and the small closet in which Hugo sleeps. It’s a tribute to Appelfeld’s skill that he is able to sustain an engaging narrative with such a small array of characters and locations. This makes the final section after Mariana and Hugo leave the brothel all the more powerful for its contrast with what has gone before.

Barring one or two slightly repetitious passages, the intensity of the story builds towards the final chapters as a growing awareness of Jewish identity emerges in Hugo’s mind. This is summed up by a woman he encounters helping displaced people towards the end of the book. Her words suggest something of the sense of shared experience and kinship in the face of adversity that would underpin the formation of the future Jewish state:

‘We have to leave together and watch over one another. Brothers don’t say, I’ve already given. Brothers give more, and we have, thank God, a lot to give. One gives a cup of coffee and the other helps a woman bandage her wounds. One gives a blanket, and the other raises the pillow of a person who’s having trouble breathing. We have a lot to give. We don’t know yet how much we have.’

Without doubt, this is a powerful and striking take on the events that shook the world 70 years ago. Even if it wasn’t the pick of the Shadow Independent Foreign Fiction Prize judges, it is an accomplished and beautiful work.

Nevertheless, as the novel ended I found myself impatient to see how the story continued after the state of Israel declared its independence. I was curious about books set in the country in recent years and itched to read something like Sara Shilo’s The Falafel King is Dead or David Grossman’s To the End of Land to see how these narratives played out in light of all that has happened in the region since 1948. Ah well, maybe next year.

Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld, translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M Green (Alma Books, 2012)

Ukraine: killer punchlines

This was one of those books that you hear about and want to read. Not only was the premise of the novel – about an obituary writer who shares his flat with a king penguin – intriguing, but the story of Andrey Kurkov’s rise to become one of Ukraine’s most celebrated writers was pretty gripping in its own right: having to deal with more than 500 rejections from publishers, Kurkov self-published his early works and sold them on the streets of Kiev. Clearly, this was one dedicated writer.

The unlikely hero of Kurkov’s most famous work, which bears the Ronseal-style title Death and the Penguin, is Viktor, a novelist manqué who strikes it lucky when a newspaper hires him to write advance obituaries of some of the country’s great, good and not so good. All seems to be going well and Viktor looks set to break out of the lonely, frugal existence he has shared with Misha, a king penguin he adopted when the zoo closed down, until the subjects of his obituaries start to die in suspicious circumstances. As it becomes clear that his ‘vital images of the future departed’ carry more significance than he could ever have imagined, Viktor finds himself embroiled in an increasingly sinister plot, and realises he will need to use all his powers of invention to escape with his life.

Funny, dark and spare, Kurkov’s prose evokes complex situations in a handful of words. The writer does this by using small details to reveal the humanity of his characters: a militiaman’s wish for a quiet shift, a cartoon on TV, a gangster’s pride about his car.

He combines this with razor-sharp perception to produce striking and often touching reflections on death, loneliness, friendship and love. In particular, Viktor’s meditations on the strange alchemy that is the obituary writer’s craft – creating something fixed and definitive out of a mass of memories, half-truths and anecdotes – are fascinating:

‘The past believed in dates. And everyone’s life consisted of dates, giving life a rhythm and sense of gradation, as if from the eminence of a date one could look back and down, and see the past itself. A clear, comprehensible past, divided up into square of events, lines of paths taken.’

Similar to Vatanen’s hare in Arto Paasilinna’s The Year of the Hare (my Finnish book), Misha the penguin acts as a kind of barometer for his master, reflecting his mental and emotional state. He also humanises Viktor, giving him the vulnerability necessary to enable Kurkov to steer him through the moral hinterland the plot demands without losing the reader’s sympathy.

The result is that rarest of beasts: a novel that is every bit as gripping as it is well-written. I read it in virtually one sitting – and not merely because I had to keep up with the schedule. Great.

Death and the Penguin (Smert’postoronnego) by Andrey Kurkov, translated from the Russian by George Bird (Melville International Crime, 2011)