In the High Peaks

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Aharon Appelfeld's A Story of a Life

When I first picked up Appelfeld's narrative, I thought, "Oh, another Holocaust memoir." But was I in for a surprise.

Appelfeld was just seven or a bit older when his father, mother, and he had to flee their comfortable home in Romania, at the very beginning of the war in Europe. The little boy had been secure in his parents', his servants', and his grandparents' love, but suddenly that world is snatched away and nothing is ever again as it was.

A Story of a Life is not a linear narrative, which is one of its strengths. Appelfeld loosely strings patches of intensely detailed memories, some from the days before his world changed and some after. Some of what might be supposed to be the most significant memories are no more than the remembrance of a scream heard from afar--his mother's, signalling her murder.

Although Appelfeld doesn't say, it seems that he and his parents were taken from their homes to a Jewish ghetto in another city in Romania, and from there, it's not spelled out, but he and his father are walking to Ukraine to a "camp." More shadowy reminiscences, and then, Appelfeld escapes from the camp and is on his own, roaming the forests. Alone.

It is this aloneness that Appelfeld conveys with such startling clarity. There he is, a young child,  in deep woodlands, hallucinating visions of his mother and hanging on to the certainty that they will come to him. He scrounges berries, but what else? The time period is not clear, but it is months. With winter, he must find shelter, and after an undetermined length of time a woman takes him on as hired help. She is a prostitute, the means to his survival, but cares nothing for him. Eventually, he escapes her threats to kill him and somehow, he lands in Italy, in an "orphanage," where he is prey to Italian smugglers and evil-doers who exploit children for whatever ends.

As he reenters society, he has no language and rarely speaks a word. Years later, after the end of the war, he journeys to Palestine, but his isolation seems to intensify, perhaps as he becomes more aware of the communication abilities of his peers. This introspection that marks him also isolates him, and he tells the painful story of his first years in Palestine, on a kibbutz and later, in the military.

His years of apprenticeship as a writer are a struggle, but he does not give up, and the reader sees him becoming part of a tight writing community.

If I had time, I would like to quote a number of amazing paragraphs from the book--so filled with meaning.

Appelfeld as a child and teen reminded me so much of the boy in North to Freedom by Anne Holm, who, I believe, is a Danish writer. I believe it was published in the UK as I Am David. It was made into a film, and I have seen it, but I have read and reread the book--it is one of my favorites--and it's haunting.

1 comment:

  1. I was so surprised by this book as well. I thought it would be more in the line of Primo Levi and while he is a wonderful writer too, the writing is completely different. One perosn who joined the readalong said he didn't like that we never knew what was real and what was in vented in this memoir. I never had the feeling he invented. Some of his memories were blurred because he was acking the words. What do you think?
    I found the way he wrote about language one of the most compelling parts.
    Thanks for your post and for joining me in this readalong.