The noted critic Irving Howe wrote that the author Aharon Appelfeld (born 1932) “is one of the best novelists alive.” Here is a summary of two of his tales.
To the Land of Cattails
By Aharon Appelfeld
The title of this fascinating 1987 novel is ironic. A mother and her son, she in her early thirties and he about 16 or 17, are returning to the home of her Orthodox Jewish parents after an absence of close to two decades in a carriage led by two horses. The year is 1938. They were unknowingly entering Hitler’s Germany.
She left home when she married a non-Jew, despite her parent’s warnings. He turned into a drunk and wife-beater. She assures her son that they are going to a pleasant area where flowers bloom. Their trip takes months. They encounter many experiences of anti-Semitic hatred, including the murder of a Jewish Inn Keeper. Readers may feel the urge to warn her “Don’t go!” But she is sure her longing for happiness and fulfillment is in front of her.
She is beautiful, but uneducated, knows little of Judaism, and is very fearful, although she has no idea why. While wanting to reunite with her Jewish parents, she utters defamatory remarks to her son from time to time, such as “Jews are short” and “Jews dislike pleasure,” while her disparaging remarks are equaled in number with her praise for her parents and Judaism, for she wants her son, who was raised as a non-Jew, to be Jewish. It seems clear that she has absorbed her husband’s hatred, although she left him long ago. After separating from her husband she had many affairs because of her beauty, including one with an elderly man who left her money when he died. While she looks Jewish, her son does not. As a result, peasants make insulting remarks to her during the trip, but not to her son.
She is addicted to cigarettes and coffee, but frequently warns her son not to drink like his father, who he saw only as a child, once in his life, and he promises that he will not do so. But when the two reach an Inn that is just two hours from her parent’s home, he overly indulges in beer and is intoxicated for days.
She decides to proceed alone. Readers will find what follows disturbing, but they will enjoy the book because, as the noted critic Irving Howe wrote, Appelfeld, the author, “is one of the best novelists alive.”
The Iron Tracks
By Aharon Appelfeld
Aharon Appelfeld’s 1998 novel The Iron Tracks is an unusual tale. Some people today live on cruise ships rather than owning or renting a home and paying the expenses of the home, as well as for food and entertainment. These people recognize that it is cheaper to live on a cruise ship, such as Queen Mary II, among some 2000 transient passengers and have gourmet foods prepared for them and enjoy the many ship activities, films, and other entertainments that are included in the cost.
But Erwin is different; he lives on trains. He travels from place to place in Austria after World War II, in yearly cycles. He doesn’t carry sandwiches and bottled water onto the trains because he enjoys sitting in the club cars, eating and drinking there, and listening to the classical music in the club car. If classical music is not playing, he hands the porter a tip to switch to the music he likes. He visits Inns at the various stops, bathes, and stays for a day or two.
He meets interesting people on the train, including women with whom he has one night stands. Virtually every chapter in this book describes the unusual people he meets: Jews, half Jews, quarter Jews, people unsatisfied with life, people searching for something just like him, and anti-Semites who are not only on the train but also in the Inns. A prostitute, for example, tells him she will sleep with any man no matter how disfigured, but never with a Jew. An Inn owner welcomed Erwin each year with open arms and body. She showered him with the best comforts and foods until she discovered he was Jewish, and then was unable to even look at him.
Erwin is not educated. His grandparents were knowledgeable observant Jews. Their daughter, his mother, married unobservant Jew, a communist. Erwin’s mother wanted him to have an education but his father was against it. He felt that the schools would teach non-communist principles. Erwin’s father was a good leader of his communist group. The non-Jews in the group despised him but keep him as their leader only because of his skills. His father was seldom at home. He traveled by train from place to place teaching communism. Erwin sometimes joined him in these travels as a youngster before he entered his teens. When the Nazis come to power, the communist group tossed him out. Both his mother and father were killed by the Nazi Colonel Nachtigel.
Erwin is traveling looking for Nachtigel, seeking revenge. When he visits the various cities he also looks for Jewish memorabilia – books, menorahs, kiddush cups – not to save them but to sell them, and this is how he supports himself. Then, one day, Erwin hears that Nachtigel is renovating a house in a certain city with the intension of living there. He takes a gun and heads for the city.
Readers will enjoy this tale, the stories of the various people Erwin meets, and what happens when he encounters the aged Nachtigel.