Appelfeld's Metaphoric Return


By Aharon Appelfeld
Translated by Aloma Halter
240 pages. Schocken. $23.95.

There are many fine novelists writing in Israel today. Among them, Aharon Appelfeld stands out, in my mind, for the type of stories he tells. Out of all our major Israeli novelists, Appelfeld is the only one I can think of whose writing rarely focuses on the land of Israel at all. The bulk of Appelfeld’s fiction deals with Jewish life in Europe, most often Europe as it was, or as Appelfeld imagines it, before the war.

The war is, of course, World War II, certainly the key event of Appelfeld’s life. Appelfeld was a young child when the war began, but its influence on his work has been both obvious and lasting. Life before the Holocaust, how the Holocaust came to be, and how the majority of Jews living in Europe spent the years leading up to the genocide oblivious to their impending destruction are themes to which Appelfeld repeatedly, insistently returns.

Appelfeld’s most recently translated novel, Laish, takes place in what is, in many ways, a conventional Appelfeld setting. The novel consists of a journey taken by a caravan of Jews in an unspecified time (probably the late 19th century) along the River Prut, which meanders through Ukraine and Romania before joining the Danube. The Jews in the caravan, following the river, are making their slow, meandering way to the port city of Galacz, from which they hope to take a ship to the land of Israel and eventually settle in Jerusalem.

The book’s eponymous protagonist and narrator, Laish, is a teenage naïf whose parents died when he was very young. He is brought up by, and within, the caravan of ragtag Jews. The caravan itself consists of two distinct groups: the “old men,” who are for the most part pious and learned, and the “dealers,” who are for the most part not. Conflicts and disputes between the two groups take up a large portion of the novel.

And while the story does have a linear narrative—the caravan goes from point A to point B—it's a challenge to read it literally. As in much of Appelfeld’s fiction, metaphor abounds. Things always stand for things. Everything means something else. So, the story makes sense on a literal level: There is a caravan, led by an old man, a great leader, who showed the caravan the way, and then passed on; there are many disputes and travails, both internal and external, during the caravan’s journey to Jerusalem. But the novel becomes fascinating and gripping only when one realizes that everything stands for something else: That the old man is Moses; that the pitfalls of the caravan are struggles of the Jewish people; that the journey of the caravan to Jerusalem is, in fact, a spiritual journey that Appelfeld takes the reader on through Jewish history.

That the novel must be read metaphorically to be truly appreciated is somewhat fascinating, but it is also the book’s primary fault. It's hard to stay interested in characters who, one feels, have no real life, are only ultimately stand-ins for larger, more universal themes. Still, though, the book is a quick read, and Appelfeld clearly knows what he is doing.

Just what Appelfeld is doing, I believe, is expanding on a story written by one of his literary forebears, S.Y. Agnon. Agnon wrote a story entitled In the Heart of the Seas, about a group of 19th-century Jews and the travails they face on their way to Israel, by ship, from Eastern Europe. Laish, ending on the banks of the Mediterranean Sea, as the scraggly survivors board a ship bound for the Holy Land, seems to end almost where Agnon’s novella begins.

Appelfeld, like Agnon, deals with the themes of spiritual quest almost as much (indeed, perhaps more) as he does that of the actual physical journey. Both novels are, indeed, thinly veiled metaphysical, almost eschatological, tracts, filled with prophecies and omens. In the Heart of the Seas is also, however, at least for me, Agnon’s least enjoyable sustained work, for precisely the same reason I like, but don’t love, Laish.

Both novels are certainly metaphorical treatises, but they are ultimately not much more. It is important and it is good for novels to have meaning, and both Agnon and Appelfeld suffused their veiled travelogues with them. But the primary purpose of novels, at least to my mind, is to entertain. If a novel does not succeed in entertaining its readers, all of its meaning, all of its treasure, will be lost to all but the struggling doctoral candidate and the apathetic reviewer.

It is important to recognize that while some people read for language, most read for plot. If a plot does not sustain itself, the book will likely not succeed. Reading great Appelfeld (and here I’d like to heartily recommend Badenheim 1939, Appelfeld’s first, fine novel), like reading great Agnon, is—and should be—a pleasure. Reading Laish, as solid a book as it is, was not.