Identity Crisis

The appearance of György Dalos' tragicomic short novel, The Circumcision, released recently in paperback by the enterprising English publisher Marion Boyars, calls to mind a simple but profound fact: Of a certain period of 20th-century history, we know very little. I am speaking of the period from the end of World War II until the fall of the Berlin Wall as it was lived by certain ordinary Eastern Europeans.

Now, you might send up a protest immediately. You could say, rightly, that the history of the Soviet bloc nations has been told over and over again, and that would be true. But what was recorded in those numerous historical volumes were the grand movements and the sweeping gestures that played out across the history of mid-century Europe, the dealings of politicians and leaders and rebellious citizens that rightly had considerable importance in the region. But what people did day in and day out — that was not made so obvious to us.

And it must also be said that within these Soviet-bloc countries, we know even less about the Jewish life that took place there, especially what transpired on a daily basis. For the most part, the people who remained in Europe after the Shoah, especially those who settled in the east, were less Jewish and more political in their outlooks. Many were true believers, committed Communists and socialists; still others may have also been married to non-Jews. They expected after the Nazi cataclysm to help build a new world, a different society that would not be ruled by the old hatreds. If they clung to vestiges of a Jewish life, they were merely that — vestiges of a richer past held on to out of sentiment or nostalgia or habit.

On the Fringe

I began thinking about this situation several years ago when I reviewed two short novels by the German Jewish writer Barbara Honigmann, who, though little known in the United States, is considered in her native land and throughout Europe as one of the foremost fiction writers now practicing. And it was stirred up again when I began reading Dalos' The Circumcision.

One of Honigmann's short novels, A Love Made Out of Nothing, seems of particular relevance in this context. The story is told by a woman who has just come to Paris, having left her home in East Berlin in the hope of starting anew as a student. She's dreamt of this escape for years. And yet, now that she's finally done it, she feels isolated and lonely, very much on the fringe. She begins reassessing the past, especially her relationships with men: her demanding and difficult father, and her complex, enigmatic lover, who works as a theater director for an East German troupe.

Memories of her father are especially persistent; he had several wives and little time for his daughter. When he first went off and married another woman, his daughter felt bereft, abandoned. But the unnamed narrator seems unable to free herself from his shadow, and his influence seems to have grown more pervasive with his recent death.

The narrator is aware of her Jewish heritage, but it's a tenuous connection at best, another mystery in her life, mostly as to why any trace of it persists — much like the influence of her father. His death not only triggers her memories but her questions as well.

The story begins with a description of her father's funeral, which was carried out, oddly enough, "in the traditional way in the Jewish Cemetery of Weimar."

"For decades, no one had been buried in that little cemetery on the way out of town, and my father's wish came as somewhat of a surprise, because during his entire life he'd had no ties to Judaism at all, not even a Hebrew name. The cantor, who had to be brought in from another city — a Jew from Saloniki who didn't know my father and had never even laid eyes on him — simply inserted his German name and, ridiculously, the title 'Doctor' as well, into the proper places in the Hebrew chant, didn't omit a single one of the endless repetitions, and, with his Sephardic accent, garbled my father's name over and over again."

Coming of Age

I have spoken of A Love Made Out of Nothing at length because it has similarities to The Circumcision. Take the authors. Dalos is somewhat older than Honigmann, though not by much. But because he was born in Budapest in 1943, they shared many of the same experiences as citizens of Soviet client states. In fact, Dalos now lives in Germany, where he heads the Institute for Hungarian Culture in Berlin.

Both writers books are filled with literary allusions. For Honigmann's, it's Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground, though her work is not as dark as the great Russian's novella. For Dalos, it's Kafka and the Central European tradition of serio-comic literature. In both cases, these works wear their references to these antecedents very lightly.

Neither book has much in the way of plot. Honigmann's is an interior tale told through memories, flashbacks and lengthy ruminations. Dalos' short novel has its farcical moments but always with serious implications for the characters and the sad, circumscribed lives they lead.

But in both cases, the narrator's struggle is with identity, and that constitutes the most compelling strand in each text; and though it would be wrong to interpret either piece as purely autobiographical, it does tell us something about both authors. Their fictional characters, much like themselves, it would seem, suffer from being the offspring of deracinated Jews, who thought of themselves as political beings, but could not bring themselves to cut all ties to their Jewishness.

Take the plot of The Circumcision. At the center of the work is 12-year-old Robi Singer, who thinks of himself as a "Hungarian Communist Jew for Christ," and so can't quite make sense of why at this late stage of his life he has to go under the ritual knife. Yes, it's true he's approaching Bar Mitzvah age, but still … . (Plus, he's not the only one. A school chum, Gábor Blum, also shares his problem.)

Robi understands that if he is to become a Bar Mitzvah, he must first lose his foreskin. But that is only one of his problems. He's a "half-orphan," as he likes to point out, extremely overweight and not particularly popular at school. And he's not at all certain that he wants to have anything to do with Judaism. But his teachers at the Jewish school he attends insist that nothing can be done until this little medical matter is attended to.

Robi worries in his inimitable way: "What if the knife should slip? How will he show himself in front of the others in the showers? Will he find a wife? And is there plastic surgery to fix up damage of this sort?"

Only Robi's wily grandmother is his ally against the teachers. His hypochondriachal mother has far too many of her own problems — she can hardly get herself out of bed in the morning — to come to his assistance.

Wonderful passages of description tell much about this watered-down Jewish life, as well as masterful set pieces of mordant comedy (among them, a family gathering during which the discussion centers on the circumcision).

In essence — and quite unlike A Love Made Out of Nothing — this is a tale of coming of age, minus histrionics or a sense of personal tragedy. Dalos' touch is light, and even when there are echoes of, say, Kafka in the humor, he's not seeking to make the grand points of his predecessor. The scale is small, but by no means inconsequential. The book ends on a sad note that tells us a great deal about the fate of those European Jews who somehow managed to "escape" their persecutors, but had no idea how to "survive" in the new postwar world, which, as they had hoped, now lacked tribal ties and clear-cut divisions.



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