LAISH, by Aharon Appelfeld
March 29, 2009
By BARRY UNSWORTH
By Aharon Appelfeld
Translated by Aloma Halter
231 pp. Schocken Books. $23.95
ISBN 978-0-8052-4159-4 (0-8052-4159-0)
A caravan of six horse-drawn wagons is wending its way through Eastern Europe. Crowded aboard, with all their worldly goods, is a miscellaneous company of Jews. They are hoping to get to Jerusalem, where they believe they will find healing for ills both physical and psychic. On the way they are beset by threats and difficulties of many kinds: harsh weather, local hostility, fear and discouragement, a murderous quarrel, a typhoid epidemic. In spite of everything, reduced by death and desertion, never far from despair, they struggle on.
Aharon Appelfeld’s latest novel, “Laish,” is a story of pilgrimage, then, and, as in all pilgrimages, what matters most is reaching the goal, sustaining faith through the travails of the journey. The stopping places, the pauses, the tests of faith, the perils to be overcome, count for very little, so long as they are survived; they are merely stages on the road to salvation.
Not much time is spent here on creating a sense of place. There are villages, there are towns — that is more or less all we are told about them. Appelfeld makes no attempt to give them particularity, to convey any distinctions of atmosphere or appearance. Only the waters of the Prut, whose course the pilgrims are following toward the sea, are given any real physical existence. And this is as it should be, since the journey of the river parallels their own. Theirs is full of incident, by turns violent and tragic and grotesque. But it is the doubt thrown on the prospect of arrival, the falterings of purpose and belief, the renewals of hope that give the novel its drive and energy.
Appelfeld’s narrator is a 15-year-old orphan whose name also gives the book its title. Laish is observant and intuitive, but he doesn’t analyze his fellow travelers or try to explain their vagaries of mood and behavior. This gives a certain starkness to the writing, reinforced by the fact that it is almost entirely devoid of descriptive adjectives and composed for the most part of short and very simply constructed sentences. The bareness of style and absence of ornament oblige the reader to an active imaginative collaboration, endowing Laish’s account with a feeling of total honesty, of being impelled by the pressures of circumstance, not elaborated beforehand, almost improvised.
The appearance of simplicity, the look of unpremeditated speech, is, of course, by a familiar paradox, the result of care and control, and the success with which it is achieved, and the art disguised, is one of the most notable and impressive features of this strikingly original novel, comparable in its way, though very different in tone, to some of the early work of Ernest Hemingway, which Appelfeld has said was a formative influence. In Aloma Halter’s translation from the Hebrew, Appelfeld’s occasional figures of speech, emerging unexpectedly and contrasting with this general lack of decoration, take on a particular vividness and immediacy, as when a character is said to “buzz about like a sick bee” or when the “thick” winter light flows beneath the narrator’s feet “like frozen water that had broken apart.”
Laish gives voice to his own feelings and impressions, but he is also the voice of the community, serving as a kind of chorus. At moments of crisis he speaks for all. “Had we come across a graveyard,” he says at one point, “we would have stopped, prostrated ourselves . . . and implored the dead to intercede for mercy on our behalf.” This collective voice gives occasional unity to a company otherwise extremely variegated: old men, repositories of ancient wisdom, unwavering in their faith; wagon drivers, violent and brutal, each with a personal history of crime and imprisonment; dealers, who welcome stops on the way to trade and make profits; women and children; the sick and the lame and the blind. What they all have in common is the sense of a terrible past, the shared experience of suffering. The violent episodes of the journey re-enact the centuries-old persecution of the race. Very powerfully, this wandering community is made to represent the historic Jewish quest for a home, for the fulfillment of God’s promise of the land of Israel to the people of Israel.
Rooted in these traumas of the past is the need for silence, the fear of reference to suffering. Most fiction relies on dialogue as a crucial element, carrying the action forward, increasing the drama of encounters, revealing character. But here conversations go nowhere, reveal nothing; they close in mutual suspicion or mutual incomprehension, or they simply tail off inconclusively. The burden of the self, Appelfeld suggests, cannot be shared. What can be shared is habit, ritual observance. Throughout the novel, as seasons and years pass, the same activities are repeated: the morning prayers, the evening fires, the search for Jewish cemeteries where the dead can be buried in proper form. And there is a constant and pervasive presence of money: coins and bank notes stitched into the linings of coats or given as charity, as blessing, as reward. For people anguished by a sense of loss and fearful of the future, money is comfort. There is a similar kind of comfort in the frequent mention of food, always in concrete and specific terms: vegetable soup, roast potatoes, a bar of halvah, fish from the river, freshly grilled. When one of the elders asks Laish where he was born and, typically enough, receives no answer, he takes a coin from his pocket and tells the boy to buy himself a pretzel spread with butter.
Appelfeld’s novel is a testament to human resilience, to the capacity of survival. But it is as much about release from the past as about endurance in the present or arrival in the future. And there is a certain sense in which this company of pilgrims doesn’t survive at all. To seek redress for wrongs by inflicting further wrongs is a doomed enterprise, as we have learned from the times we live in. When the remnants of the company reach the port, before they can embark for Jerusalem a deliberate and collective act of outrage on one of their number, old and blind and helpless, has to take place. It is the first time this has happened — before this, acts of violence have always been individual, thefts marked by stealth. So it is not the joy of departure or the excitement of anticipated arrival that we are left with in this remarkable novel but a face exhausted by weeping, an image of sorrow and violation.
Barry Unsworth’s latest novel, “Land of Marvels,” was published in January.
Last update - 16:22 12/03/200
By Benjamin Balint
by Aharon Appelfeld (translated from the Hebrew by Aloma Halter), Schocken, $23.95, 232 pages
Childhood, the point at which character congeals, gives renowned Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld his richest subject. Maybe that's because Appelfeld's own childhood was far from childlike. After escaping from a concentration camp in Ukraine, he wandered parentless for years before making it to Palestine in 1946, aged 14. "What you saw in your childhood," his mentor S.Y. Agnon once told him, "would be enough for three writers."
In "Laish," the latest of his novels to be rendered into
English (it was published in Hebrew in 2001), Appelfeld tells a somber story
through the eyes of a 15-year-old orphan. He's employed this device before.
Appelfeld narrated "All Whom I Have Loved," for example, from the point of view
of a 9-year-old. But here it works to especially devastating effect.
The novel's simple plot follows a displaced and disoriented boy by the name of Laish, after one of the biblical words for lion, the strongest among the beasts. Laish longs for his parents, though he doesn't know their names, nor where he's from. He knows only that they fought on behalf of the downtrodden, for widows and orphans. Still, memories of his mother bring him to sweet reverie.
The only home Laish knows is the convoy of six wagons in which he has traveled for years as it follows the Prut River from the Carpathians toward the Black Sea. Sometimes the river seems to the boy like a benevolent guide, at other times "like the mythical Sambatyon," the river across which the 10 lost tribes were said to have been exiled. As the convoy straggles on - from Shazov to Sadagora to Czernowitz to Vishnitz - it encounters many hardships: police raids, robbers lying in ambush, relentless rains, fierce cold spells and a typhoid epidemic. Sometimes delays keep it in place for weeks on end. Often, its wandering seems to Laish to be an aimless charade.
But its travelers consider themselves pilgrims bound for Jerusalem, a city they imagine will work miracles. "One hour in Jerusalem is worth seven years in Galacz," one hopeful wanderer says. When the travelers, all Jewish, despair of someone, they say, "not even Jerusalem will cure him." Unlike the adults, Laish daydreams of Jerusalem as Kafka might imagine it - a forbidding place, "a tall mountain overhung with thorny foliage, with strong guards at every point of entry."
The convoy's pilgrims are a motley rabble: dealers and traders, embittered women, compulsive thieves and fearful musicians. There are compassionate old men who tell Laish that a life without Torah is wretched. There are crude wagon drivers who say: "A Jew has to be strong and not fearful. Weak Jews bring out the murderer in the goy." All the pilgrims have led hard and painful lives, and are sparing with their words. Nightmares possess them and dreadful pasts haunt them, sometimes to the point of madness.
As the story unfolds, Laish wakes the travelers up for morning prayers, tends to a dying man, endures the brutality meted out to him by some of the adults, makes Turkish coffee, gathers firewood, picks plums, fishes in the river, washes down the horses and studies the weekly Torah portion. The duty that most fascinates him, however, is to list the convoy's dead in a notebook entrusted to him by one of the dying old men. At first, he fears the book. Later, he comes to love it. "Hebrew letters fill me with a zest for life," Laish says. "A proper sentence that emerges from my pen makes me happy for the entire day."
But most of the time, Laish observes the adults with the sensitivity only a child can summon. When their talk becomes bitter, he fears the ways "words are removed from their sheaths." A drunk man seems to him "like a Jew who had forgotten his learning." He notices a woman whose laugh has been coarsened by cognac. Watching the old men engage in perpetual battle with the angel of death, he says, "the way they pray is like a declaration of war." Most of all, Laish watches faces, expressions and glances. (In his memoir, "The Story of a Life," Appelfeld suggests that during the war faces mattered more than words. "From faces you learned to what extent the person next to you wanted to help you or intended to harm you .... Starvation reverts us to our instincts, to a kind of language that precedes speech.")
"Laish" ends in Galacz, a Black Sea port thick with thieves, where the pilgrims hope to board a ship to Palestine. By now, the sad convoy has dwindled - in number and in morale. "We were the remnants of a large camp," Laish says.
His roots are elsewhere
Appelfeld is the least Israeli of the living Israeli writers. His past sets him apart from the others. Like Agnon, his roots are elsewhere. He writes not about Israel, but about what came before.
But even that he doesn't address unambiguously. Philip Roth has remarked that Appelfeld's fiction hovers "midway between parable and history" - an apt description of this beautiful, dreamlike novel. Part of the reason, surely, is that what counts as "history" in Appelfeld's universe glares too harshly to be gazed upon directly. As in his other books, Appelfeld writes here about the Holocaust without writing about the Holocaust. It is the unspoken. Unlike Primo Levi, Appelfeld confronts it with indirection. He never describes the forces of extinction. Sometimes, he sets his stories before the killing, as in "Badenheim 1939" and "The Conversion." In "The Age of Wonders," Appelfeld writes about the eve of the war, and then skips to a time "many years later when everything was over." The war is present only in its absence.
"Laish" evokes a vague postwar eeriness. It mentions no dates, no Nazis or death camps. Instead, Appelfeld crafts a mood not of anger, but of profound disquiet and insecurity. (The critic Irving Howe once called him "a virtuoso of nervousness.")
He accomplishes this with his characteristic precision and simplicity, a spare prose of restraint and reticence well-served here by his translator, Aloma Halter.
So much for the history in "Laish." As for the parable, Appelfeld's tale offers a delicate allegory for what Heinrich Heine, in his poem about Yehuda Halevy, called "Israel's sorrow-caravan / through the wilderness of Exile." The story of wandering through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land can be told in two ways. It can be recounted from the point of view of the land successfully reached. In that case, we know that the sorrows of the wilderness, heavily though they weighed, were but the birth pangs of renewal. Or, as in "Laish," the story of exile can be told from within exile, when we are not yet certain the Promised Land will be reached, or that it will have been worth the sorrows.
Review: 'Laish' by Aharon Appelfeld
Sun, 29 Mar 2009 04:00
By Aharon Appelfeld
Schocken, 240 pages
In an age when the fake Holocaust memoir threatens to become a genre unto itself, Aharon Appelfeld's The Story of a Life (2004), an autobiographical account of his terrifying childhood during the Shoah and his subsequent catharsis through writing, assumes even greater relevance. Yet Appelfeld's oeuvre consists largely of fiction; the Israeli author has more than 20 novels and short story collections to his name. The novel Laish, translated from the Hebrew by Aloma Halter, is his latest work to be published in English.
Like most of Appelfeld's fiction, Laish does not deal directly with the Holocaust, which looms in the distance as a caravan of disparate Jewish pilgrims wends its way through eastern Europe. Ostensibly bound for the sea, where they will sail for Jerusalem, the travelers have been on the road for years. The more unscrupulous among them, known as "the dealers," have grown addicted to the gifts both Jews and Christians lavish upon pilgrims to the holy land, and keep bilking villages for money and provisions. "In the name of Jerusalem we are always welcomed with piety; we are blessed and given charity," observes Laish, the novel's eponymous narrator. He looks askance at the dealers' avarice but recognizes the usefulness of their cunning and street smarts.
A 15-year-old orphan, Laish calls to mind the author as a child; the Holocaust claimed Appelfeld's mother and separated him from his father. Laish reflects, "My roots are cut off like stumps, and sometimes I feel the pain inside the wounds." Having escaped a concentration camp and fled to the Ukrainian forests, Appelfeld wandered through an all-enveloping silence. In Laish, a former convict's years in jail mean that "he found it hard to speak, and his torn words and unclear syllables seemed to emerge from deep within him." Intriguingly, the story itself, though set before World War II, is vaguely reminiscent of Appelfeld's stint in a postwar displaced persons camp in Italy, where he and other Holocaust survivors awaited permission to immigrate to Palestine.
Unfortunately, Laish suffers from a loose, narrative framework in which the author's focus shifts in a desultory manner from one traveler to another. And in delineating the physically and mentally afflicted characters who join the convoy hoping to be healed in Jerusalem, Appelfeld relies too heavily on grotesquerie. What proves heartwarming and ultimately life-affirming, however, is the author's insistence on ferreting out the humanity of even the vilest creatures. Laish is an uncertain teenager cast adrift by the death of his parents and bewildered by the contradictory world of cruelty and virtue surrounding him; yet even when interacting with a murderer, he somehow finds and nurtures that lone spark of decency that refuses to be extinguished.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a free-lance writer based in Beirut, Lebanon.
Jigsaw Tales of Wandering Jews
By Naomi Sokoloff
Published March 12, 2009, issue of March 20, 2009.
By Aharon Appelfeld, translated by Aloma Halter
Schocken Books, 240 pages,
Celebrated author and Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld commemorates the collective past by populating his creative work with a wide assortment of Jewish characters. In his multifaceted fictional world, Appelfeld constructs a panorama of Jewish life before, during and after the Shoah. In English, however, pieces of the picture are missing. Many of his texts have yet to be translated. Now, with the English translation of “Laish,” a novel published in Hebrew in 1994, readers who follow Appelfeld in his English translations can fill in some of the lacunae in his artistic universe.
Laish” takes on special resonance, as it is appearing in English after Appelfeld’s memoir, “The Story of a Life, (1999 in Hebrew, 2004 in English), a work that details personal experiences from Appelfeld’s formative years that have become the source for a variety of episodes, characters and images throughout the writer’s oeuvre. The memoir suggests how the many parts of the author’s imaginative world fit together, stemming, as they do, from his own past.
Where does “Laish” fit in? This melancholy yet lyrical narrative, part picaresque novel and part enigmatic fable, follows a band of Jews who roam about Eastern Europe, camping along the Prut River. Their ostensible goal is to one day reach Jerusalem. The cast of characters in the ragtag-pilgrimage includes sages and elders, merchants and wagon drivers, thieves and thugs, victims of pogroms and a rabble of assorted folks suffering all manner of misfortune. Along the way, they meet with a series of disasters: Epidemics, floods and attacks delay them; distractions and desertions compound their difficulties, leading to quarrels and indecision. Narrating these travails is a 15-year-old orphan named Laish.
As a tale of wandering Jews, “Laish” recalls many of Appelfeld’s other works, but none so vividly as “The Story of a Life” — particularly, that book’s account of refugees, after the Holocaust, making their way across Europe to Italy and contemplating aliyah. “Laish” is set in an earlier, ill-defined period, yet, like the memoir, the novel portrays an era of migration, of displaced lives, and a world in which greed, corruption, theft and violence are ubiquitous.
A notable incident in “The Story of a Life” revolves around a search for contraband, conducted by the Italian police. After the raid, black marketers pounce on a man named Shmil, accuse him of informing against them and beat him to death. In “Laish,” a character named Ephraim is similarly accused of being a snitch and is beaten. The episode in the memoir, however, consists of a few brief sentences; in the novel, the parallel events unfold around multiple chapters.
Unlike Shmil, Ephraim is grievously wounded, but he survives long enough for the other Jews to ask his forgiveness, to tend to him and to bear the burden of their guilt by carrying him along with the convoy. As he suffers, he attains exceptional spiritual heights and reports near-death visions suffused with divine light. In the midst of the most grotesque and painful circumstances, Appelfeld manages to uncover redemptive gestures, small acts of compassion and occasional moments of wonder. “Laish,” like “The Story of a Life,” presents an array of dreadful, evil personalities and acknowledges individuals who, in the worst of times, protect and care for others, teach children to read and to write, and continue to pray.
Another parallel between the memoir and the novel is the way they foreground an orphan’s sorrow. “The Story of a Life” recounts aspects of Appelfeld’s own childhood, when he was wandering alone in the forests after escaping a Nazi camp. At that time, Appelfeld says, although he knew his mother had been murdered, he never lost the feeling that his parents were waiting for him, protecting him throughout the war. He notes: “Her death is deep inside me, but more a part of me than her death is her reappearance after it. Any time I’m happy or sad I see her face.” Similarly, Laish says that his parents’ features “have been effaced” from his memory, yet they come to him in dreams. He feels his parents’ presence as souls that intercede on his behalf.
This boy latches on to a number of older figures. Some prove to be cruel and selfish, others kind and generous. The masters he serves range from miserly, cynical Fingerhut to abusive, murderous Ploosh and rough but charitable, dependable Sruel. Along with degradation and misery, Laish observes instances of selflessness and gains wisdom from the holy men among his companions. In his hunger for family and belonging, he also idealizes his fellow travelers, who, like him, yearn for a haven. What sustains him in his loneliness is a belief that Jews will remain bound to one another, no matter what. Is his sweet yearning misplaced in such a bleak context? Does it invite ironic mockery, or is it indicative of a profound sense of connection and heartfelt nostalgia for faith?
It’s not clear how much the author identifies with his character here and to what extent he exposes naiveté as folly. What’s clear is that Laish, like the author himself, comes to serve as a guardian of memory and the collective past. He chronicles the life of the convoy, jotting down impressions of the journey and recording the names of the dead in a notebook. “Laish” is hardly a portrait of the artist as a young man, but the act of producing writing that sustains a community has an undeniable pivotal role here, and so Laish earns himself a place of honor. Beset by losses, he is also an affecting figure. The reader senses his genuine pain when people he knows drift away — and over time, many do. The number of travelers dwindles, only a remnant persists, and ascent to Jerusalem seems ever more elusive. Still, Laish clings to his dream of unbreakable bonds, and though he admits the caravan grows smaller from week to week, he insists that “anyone who has ever been a part of it will miss it forever.”
“Laish” meanders as the wanderers straggle on. The episodic plot structure is classic Appelfeld, as is the spare, melodic prose. In his trademark style, the author combines understatement with repetitious, sometimes dilatory storylines to convey disorientation and dislocation. For the patient reader, there are gems to discover along the winding path. Laish himself alerts us to this, inviting us to keep reading as he remarks, “Who knows what will turn out to be important and what will prove trivial?” Haunting images surface frequently — sometimes when least expected — encapsulating gestures of grief, generosity and disillusionment in a collective story of restless wandering.
“Laish” reads like a symbolic description of postwar refugees, even as it commemorates a prewar world of Jewish suffering and faith. Mixing memory and imagination, Appelfeld produces a kind of timeless fictional realm. And the novel reveals the author experimenting — in fiction — with first-person narration, before turning to the genre of memoir. “Laish” in English goes beyond filling a gap in the bookshelves of Appelfeld devotees; it helps chart the winding paths the author has taken toward self-writing in his devotion to imaginative depictions of the Jewish past.
Naomi Sokoloff is a professor of Hebrew and modern Jewish literature at the University of Washington, Seattle.
From the Hartford Courant
Fiction Review: Grim, Beautiful Laish By Aharon Appelfeld
| Sun-Sentinel Books Editor
March 29, 2009
Whatever the name Laish may signify in Hebrew, Yiddish, Romanian or Ukrainian,
American readers will be forgiven if they associate it with the English word
The characters of Aharon Appelfeld's beautiful and profoundly disturbing new novel, only dimly aware of their own motives, seem to go through life under the lash of relentless unseen forces.
Laish, a 15-year-old orphan, cannot remember when he was not a member of a group of Jewish pilgrims, making their way laboriously through Eastern Europe in the closing years of the 19th century, on their way to Jerusalem.
Started by a revered holy man, long since dead, the caravan depends on devout old men, the spiritual leaders of the group. Also included are traders, thieves and con men, sometimes interchangeable, who prey on their companions as well as the Jewish and Christian settlements through which they pass.
Practical leadership often falls to the wagon drivers, strong, profane and
drunken, most of them former convicts released after decades of imprisonment for
murder. Though they behave on impulse, they still at times bow to the pious
authority of the old men.
Appelfeld observes the pilgrims' progress at close range, never drawing back to provide context or overview, hewing scrupulously to Laish's point of view. Though the narrative is lovely and precise, the events it describes consist of a succession of miseries — murder, strife, double-dealing, hunger, harsh weather, pestilence.
Appelfeld delivers a strong narrative, richly detailed, and he seeds the story with subtle bits of symbolism. After cowing a cemetery keeper, who demanded an exorbitant fee to allow a burial, the convoy departs: "The warden asked nothing else and retired to the forecourt of the graveyard. But before he turned to go into his hut, he waved and drew two iron bars across the gates. The wooden doors momentarily buckled under the weight of the metal, then straightened themselves."
It is impossible to read this passage and not think of the pilgrims, buckling under the weight of hardship and pain, yet always standing up, always continuing on. It is also impossible to read this book without reference to the Holocaust.
That's because Appelfeld, one of Israel's most important novelists, survived the Final Solution as a child. Even though the events of this novel take place decades before the Nazis sought to exterminate the Jews, the agonies and sorrows of its characters cannot help but evoke the image of too-familiar horrors.
Appelfeld's skill lends the symbolism a shrewd versatility. The journey could be seen as the history of the Jews, making their way through alien territory toward the Promised Land. It could be a metaphor for modern Israel, pulled in different directions by religious and secular impulses.
And not least, this sad, grim story provides a powerful representation of human life, the universal struggle to survive in an unforgiving world. Paradise may be the goal — Jerusalem is a clear symbol of Heaven — while faith may sustain. But only death and pain are certainties.