'Israel's Sorrow-caravan'

In telling the story of exile from within exile, Aharon Appelfeld evokes a vague postwar eeriness and crafts a mood of profound disquiet and insecurity

Laish 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.

Benjamin Balint, a writer living in Jerusalem, is a fellow at the Hudson Institute.