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The Power of Memory

October 4, 2007 By:
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Aharon Appelfeld
I am forever astonished at how many fictional variations Aharon Appelfeld has been able to spin from the bits and pieces of his tragic life story. This ability became even clearer to me several years ago, when the great Israeli novelist published his memoir The Story of a Life, where he dealt with the "truth" that has been the sad but fertile soil from which his long creative life has sprung. There, we learned the details of his childhood, which most devoted readers of his novels knew at least in part.

When the Nazis occupied his native Czernowitz in 1941, he was a mere 7 years old. His mother was killed in the early days of the occupation, but Appelfeld and his father managed to stay together for a time. First, the Jews were squeezed into the ghetto; then, those who had not been starved to death or shot were sent on a forced march across Ukraine to a labor camp. The majority of the prisoners died along the way, but father and son did hang on. More astonishing still was the fact that Appelfeld was able to escape from the camp shortly after their arrival. His father perished there.

The young boy's survival skills proved acute as he hid alone in the Ukrainian forest, steering clear of the peasants until he was old enough to emerge from the woods and seek work, telling would-be employers that he was an orphaned gentile. He kept his wits about him, until, at war's end, he wound up in a displaced persons' camp. At last, he secured passage onboard a ship headed for Palestine, where he began to construct his new life and, in time, tentatively started his career as a writer.

But what proved most extraordinary about The Story of a Life was that Appelfeld provided us with glimpses -- perhaps even unknowingly -- into how he creates his fiction, especially in his comments on how memory and consciousness work:

"Memory is elusive and selective; it holds on to what it chooses to hold on to. I won't say that it retains only what is good and pleasant. Very like a dream, memory takes specific details out of the viscous flow of events -- sometimes tiny, seemingly insignificant details -- stores them deeply away, and at certain times brings them up to the surface. Like a dream, memory also tries to imbue events with some meaning.

"Ever since childhood, I have felt that memory is a living and effervescent reservoir that animates my being. When I was still a child, I would sit and visualize the summer holidays at my grandparents' home in the country. For hours I'd sit by the window and picture the journey there. Everything that I recalled from previous vacations would return to me in the most vivid way."

In these few sentences, we not only have a summation of Appelfeld's working method but also a preview, in some sense, of his newest novel, All Whom I Have Loved, recently published by Schocken. The central figure in the work is 9-year-old Paul Rosenfeld, the much-loved only child of divorced parents, who watches as his circumscribed world and the larger society around him -- the far reaches of Eastern Europe on the verge of World War II -- begin to fragment, becoming more unstable with each passing day. As in all of Appelfeld's books, the landscape around his characters takes on a hyper-reality as the novel progresses, as if seen against some harsh, surreal light, so what might seem purely realistic in any other context takes on an odd sense of foreboding.

Tragedy Everywhere

When the work opens, Paul is living with his mother, an assimilated schoolteacher whom he idolizes -- that is, until she marries the non-Jewish André. The child is then sent to live with his uncommunicative, depressive father, an artist who is continually struggling for recognition but is often denounced by the critics. He drinks to deaden the pain.

Paul is sent back and forth between these two adults, searching for cohesion and stability. Meanwhile, Europe careens toward war, and anti-Semitism increases wherever Paul finds himself. As in other Appelfeld novels, there is a peasant girl who cares for the child for a time and to whom he becomes strongly attached, but who meets a tragic end. And, as in other Appelfeld fiction, we watch a child attempt to understand the religious life, both Jewish and Christian, that he stumbles upon as he makes his way through one unstructured day after another.

In this novel, both parents die before the war begins: Paul's mother is abandoned by her second husband and succumbs to typhus; sometime later, his father is shot while trying to intercede in the robbery of a Jewish-owned store. By this time, it is 1938, and Paul is left alone, his fate uncertain. Thus the novel ends, and we are left to read into what has occurred to this trio of characters the tragedy that will soon engulf the majority of Europe's Jews.

In the first chapter, in brief fragmentary passages, Appelfeld sketches in the relationship between the parents and how Paul relates to each. Then, in Chapter 2, the child and his mother go off to the country, and the prose takes on the customary elegiac quality that Appelfeld utilizes whenever he is clearly piecing together from memory the sensory data of his past. (This is a theme and a mood that run through any number of Appelfeld works, and that were alluded to in the passage quoted above from The Story of a Life.)

"When I awoke," Appelfeld writes of Paul's experiences in the country, "the sun was already full at the window. Mother prepared breakfast and said: 'We'll soon go down to the river.' We sat at the table, and we saw how the sun bathed the two rooms of the house with its light, and for a while we were filled with wonder.

"This was how our vacation in the country began. We would get up early, eat something light, and then go to the river. The river was not deep and flowed quietly. The first dip would be cold, and immediately we would wrap ourselves in towels and jump around to warm up, but the higher the sun climbed, the more it would warm the water, and so we would dip in again and again. Mother would swim. Her strokes were rhythmic and supple. I was afraid when she swam out far and glad when she came back to me.

" 'Mother!' I'd call out with excitement.

" 'What?' she'd say, her arms reaching toward me.

"I'd run and hug her legs.

"Every few days we walked out farther, as far as the lake. The lake was in the heart of the forest, and its waters were black. Mother would dive and dive again, and at last she would take me in her arms and swim along with me. I would feel a fear full of pleasure, and we stayed in the heavy shadows for hours, bundled up in large towels, and only as the sun set would we pack the knapsack and return home. On the way back, we would sometimes come upon a calf or a colt. It would gaze at us for a moment and then flee, but apart from that, nothing stirred. The fields of clover had been harvested and appeared grayish, and the trees huddled together, ready for their nightly slumber."

This is an archetypal Appelfeld passage -- idyllic wonder, as if drawn from a fairy tale, with a strong, deep sense of fear tugging at its edges.

All Whom I Have Loved, like many another Appelfeld novel, goes on too long; it could lose a third of its length and be just as powerful. There is a good deal of repetition in the back-and-forth existence that Paul leads with his parents. And there are passages, like Paul's mother's death, that are a touch too sentimental, even mawkish.

But this is a central text in the long narrative work that Appelfeld has been writing for years now. And as with so many of his novels, if one is attuned to all the echoes that resound throughout it, the book proves to be a bruising reading experience.

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