Sunday, October 16, 2011

Modern Fiction: Until TheDawn’s Light, By Aharon Appelfeld

Almost is the operative word here. From the novel’s opening lines, we sense the pain and urgency behind Blanca’s flight. In Aharon Appelfeld’s characteristic manner — that is, with a deftness that allows single words to suggest volumes of emotional complication — he draws us into this young mother’s story and makes us wonder what she’s fleeing from, and to. The answers to those questions constitute both the story line and the sociohistorical backdrop of this remarkable novel, expertly translated by Jeffrey M. Green.

Soon after the novel begins, Blanca and Otto reach a safe haven of sorts, a small vine-covered cottage in a village beside a broad river. As they rest from their travels, Blanca begins a memoir for her son. Driven by a desire to tell her painful story, and to exculpate herself from her increasingly grave misdeeds, she pieces together the events of the past five years of her life. She is, we learn, the daughter of Jewish parents: a frustrated would-be mathematician turned shopkeeper, and a loving mother whose chronic illness overshadowed much of Blanca’s childhood. Both parents lost some element of their connection to Judaism early on, though it was her father who more willfully cut those ties. Blanca’s maternal grandmother, on the other hand, is the town’s most passionate upholder of the faith. When the local synagogue closes its doors because so many congregants have converted, Grandma Carole stations herself on the steps and condemns the apostates at the top of her lungs, calling down the fire of God upon them.

Among those apostates is Blanca herself, who converted to Roman Catholicism before her marriage to a young man of godlike physical stature. This (rather distractingly and forebodingly named) young man, Adolf Hammer, is a former high school classmate of Blanca’s; his failures at mathematics and Latin, delivered at the hands of Jewish teachers, feed his pre-existing anti-Semitism. Despite being Jewish herself, Blanca shares a certain degree of his distaste for Jews, and their marriage represents another departure: from her parents’ house and faith.

Not long after their wedding, Adolf begins to beat Blanca, ostensibly to purge her of the last vestiges of her Judaism and to drive Austrian strength into her. His brutal abuse soon reduces her to a state of paralytic fear. In her writings to Otto she wonders, as the reader does, how she was transformed from a brilliant mathematics student, a young woman “who stood on her own two feet, someone with an awareness of the world,” to a powerless creature “afraid of every shadow,” who “wanted only to do his will, like a maidservant.” Her decision to marry Adolf, we learn, came at a time when her mother was dying of tuberculosis and her father sinking into a bereavement that would consume him. Death had seemed “like a yawning abyss,” she reflects, “and she had escaped to Adolf, sure that Adolf was the fortified castle over which death had no dominion.”

The author, Aharon Appelfeld
Blanca’s new husband forces her first to neglect her mother, and then, when her mother dies, to abandon her disoriented, mourning father in a Jewish old-age home, from which he soon disappears. In her guilt and grief, Blanca turns to a worker at the home, Theresa, who is herself the survivor of an abusive marriage. “The main thing is not to be afraid,” Theresa tells her. “Those who are afraid are punished doubly.” She advises Blanca to get a job at a well-run Jewish old-age home in the town of Blumenthal, where the residents will tip her handsomely and where she’ll have time to recover her strength of body and mind. Pregnancy and new motherhood delay Blanca from following that advice, but when Adolf himself demands she get work, she travels to Blumenthal and secures the job. Her new position promises some relief from his beatings, but it means, too, that she has to abandon her adored infant son to the care of a housekeeper. “Until now she had been in this prison, and tomorrow she would be transferred to another one,” Appelfeld writes, neatly capturing her powerlessness and despair.

The reader wishes fervently that this new prison won’t be as demeaning or as paralyzing as the old one. Among the novel’s few flaws is that Adolf’s unremitting abuse and Blanca’s inability to escape it — however realistic that terrible equilibrium may be — comes to seem narratively static. Fortunately, Appel­feld allows Blanca’s new job to catalyze a complicated change within her. On her weekends home, as she lovingly tends the sores her son has developed as a result of the housekeeper’s neglect, Blanca’s anger and determination mount. She begins stealing jewels and money from the residents of the old-age home, amassing a small treasure that will become the key to her escape. For Blanca these acts of thievery represent a mastery of fear, and we find ourselves applauding crimes that pave the way toward a much graver one. But this novel, like so many of its great literary predecessors, forces us to question traditional morality and makes us complicit in its protagonist’s misdeeds. “Otto’s life is more important than the Ten Commandments,” Blanca imagines a friend advising her as she pockets the jewels, and with some degree of discomfort, we find ourselves cheering her on.

The portrait of the author
Blanca’s invocation of the Ten Commandments is not insignificant or accidental. As she prepares to flee the prison of her marriage, she finds herself turning toward her Jewish roots. She reads Martin Buber’s stories of the Baal Shem Tov and feels a profound longing for the ancestral home she’s never seen, the villages of Ukraine where she imagines Judaism to have been practiced with a fervency, purity and spiritual power absent in the Austria of her present-day life. As that longing rises again and again to the surface of the novel, we begin to feel that Appelfeld’s true subject is not Blanca’s departure from her parents’ house, nor her eventual departure from her marriage, but the early-20th-century mass departure of the Ostjuden from their geographic and psychological home. The novel’s real tragedy, Appelfeld seems to argue, is the larger-scale conversion of the Eastern Jews and the disastrous marriage they made to an Austria and Germany whose governments considered their assimilation as immaterial as Adolf Hammer considers Blanca’s conversion, and whose eventual aim for the Jews will be the one Adolf states not long before his wife’s departure: “ ‘We’ll eliminate them,’ he said, his mind finally at rest.”

Appelfeld signing his book

It is a testament to Appelfeld’s mastery that this element of the book feels resonant and complicated, not heavy-handed. As Blanca concludes her memoir for Otto and moves eastward toward the territory of her imaginings, we feel, instead of hope and relief, an increasing sense of dread. Blanca’s vision of Jewish life in Ukraine is idealized and unrealistic, and pain lies in that direction too; we know, after all, what happened to the Jews of Galicia as the 20th century went on. But just as acutely and tenderly as Appelfeld captures Blanca’s love for her son, he captures a larger sense of longing for a Jewish homeland, all the more so as we consider the vast, horrific losses that must occur before a Jewish state can come into being. Through one woman’s isolation, struggle and eventual release — cataclysmic though it turns out to be — we feel the losses of an entire nation, and the terrible cost of its triumphs.


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