- Fables of Loss and Delusion: A Review Essay
In 1980 Appelfeld’s classic, Badenheim 1939, appeared in an English translation. Eight more of his novels followed. Generally, these works concentrate on the Holocaust’s historical margins—its ominous prelude and its confusing aftermath. In Appelfeld’s fiction, the Holocaust is an “irrevocable historical divide,” the end of a journey from which some never return, while others emerge forever scarred by their horrific experiences. 1
Appelfeld’s heroes are assimilated Central-European Jews—bewildered, acculturated Jews—trusting in the best, only to experience the worst. As depicted by the author, they seem wonderfully self-deluded, crippled by an almost childlike naïveté. The surrounding peasant population, mainly Ruthenians, is largely antisemitic. Their inbred hatred of Jews was formed over centuries of myth and distortion about the Jews’ religious, racial, and economic beliefs and practices. The Ruthenians are a wretched subject population, ruled by mighty Austro-Hungarian or Polish authorities. Naturally, they are powerless against these oppressive regimes, and so turn their rage and frustration onto Jewish merchants and intellectuals, always convenient scapegoats in such a situation. 2 Appelfeld’s narratives of pre- and post-Holocaust events are modern fables; dark tales of alienation, dislocation, and disorientation, closely modelled after Kafka and Camus. 3 Appelfeld’s novels are devoid of historical details. Horrors always occur offstage, Nazis are rarely if ever referred to by name, extermination camps are only hinted at by trains appearing at the end of a story, as in Badenheim 1939. Appelfeld’s prose is marked by understatement, indirection, and ellipses. His narrator provides only minimal details of his hero’s external reality while expanding on his inner world—usually memories of a better, slightly romanticized life before the war and its subsequent horrors. At times, Appelfeld’s narrative veers perilously close to moralizing; but overall he [End Page 91] avoids the obvious, flavoring his writing with delicately wrought observations that bring out the story’s mythic dimensions. 4
For example, in The Immortal Bartfuss, the protagonist is a survivor living in Israel, who is struggling with a host of disturbing memories. For years he has managed to repress them, but as family and old friends close in on him, cracks in his facade begin to show. In describing Bartfuss’s transformation, the narrator notes: “He had invested a lot of energy into blocking up the openings through which thoughts could push out. In recent years he had managed to seal them off almost completely. Now he felt he didn’t have the power to stop them anymore. Again Italy, again Rosa before Rosa. . . . No one knew what to do with the lives that had been saved. The lives that had been saved strove for great deeds.”5 This passage is typical of the author’s stringent textual economy and his ability to reduce complex emotional states to simple concrete images: memories, like running water, cannot be contained, they eventually seep through.
In her brilliant review of Tzili: The Story of a Life, Joyce Carol Oates argues that Appelfeld’s “poetic narrative,” “focused powerful images and mood,” and “eliptical, oblique, indirect art” are most appropriate for a novelist who dares to take on “the formidable task of presenting the experience of European Jewry at the time of the Holocaust and beyond.”6
Dialogue is an integral part of Appelfeld’s prose. It animates the plot, moving it forward. Conversations are usually brief and fragmented, reminiscent of the fast-paced dialogue employed by German Expressionist playwrights like Kaiser, Kokoschka, and Stramm. As in Expressionist drama, this type of exchange is emblematic of restlessness and agitated minds, of characters at war with themselves and the world around them. 7 The main reason for using this technique is that Appelfeld’s assimilated Jew of the pre- and post-Holocaust period is never really at peace with himself. Beneath the thin surface of his hostility toward tradition and religion lies a thick layer of neurosis and frustration.
The fascinating drama of the assimilated Jew has attracted a variety of literary treatments by such diverse...