By Aharon Appelfeld
(Schocken, Hardcover, 9780805241594, 240pp.)
Publication Date: March 10, 2009
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A caravan of Jews wanders through Eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth century on a heartbreaking quest. Spiritual seekers and the elderly, widows and orphans, the sick and the dying, con artists and adventurers, victims of pogroms who have no place else to go–they are all on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but the journey is filled with unexpected detours and unanticipated disaster.
Among them is Laish, a fifteen-year-old orphan, through whose eyes we observe the interactions within this ragtag group of dreamers, holy men, misfits, and thieves as they battle with one another, try to stay one step ahead of the gendarmes, and do what little they can to keep up their flagging spirits. With the death of the rabbi who brought the group together, they are now led by men whom Laish refers to as “the dealers”–black-market traders whose motives are questionable but who periodically infuse the group with the money they need to get to the next town.
Years pass, tempers start to fray, and the caravan grows smaller as people die or abandon the venture. A brutal winter and typhoid epidemic further decimate the ranks, and the pilgrims have begun to reach the limits of their endurance. The dream of Jerusalem keeps the remnant going, and against all odds they finally arrive–emotionally and physically exhausted–at the port city of Galacz. They see their ship in the harbor, but whether they will actually make it onto that ship is suddenly and tragically thrown into doubt.
This magnificent new novel from Aharon Appelfeld (“One of the greatest writers of the age” —The Guardian) resonates with a universality of experience: the will to survive, the struggle to hold on to hope.
Aharon Appelfeld is the author of more than forty works of fiction and nonfiction, including Badenheim 1939, Tzili, The Iron Tracks (winner of the National Jewish Book Award), and The Story of a Life (winner of the Prix Médicis Étranger). Other honors he has received include the Giovanni Bocaccio Literary Prize, the Nelly Sachs Prize, the Israel Prize, the Bialik Prize, and the MLA Commonwealth Award. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has received honorary degrees from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion, and Yeshiva University. Born in Czernowitz, Bukovina (now part of Ukraine), in 1932, he lives in Israel.
“The appearance of simplicity, the look of unpremeditated speech, is of course 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 . . . . Very powerfully, this wandering community is made to represent the historic Jewish quest for a home . . . . [A ] remarkable novel.”
—The New York Times Book Review
"Philip Roth has remarked that Appelfeld's fiction hovers 'midway between parable and history'—an apt description of this beautiful, dreamlike novel."
"[A] melancholy yet lyrical narrative, part picaresque novel and part enigmatic fable . . . . Mixing memory and imagination, Appelfeld produces a kind of timeless fictional realm . . . . There are gems to discover along its winding path."
"The narrative of these desperate pilgrims trying to reach the Holy Land is vintage Appelfeld: equal parts fable, folktale, Torah, and Kafka . . . rendered with the author's trademark precision. . . . In his growing body of fiction–a novelistic kaddish–Appelfeld employs the right words, the only words, to pass along the story that should never have been. Being labeled a Holocaust writer might irritate Appelfeld, but no living novelist—not Elie Wiesel, not Amos Oz—better chronicles the spiritual vacuum and extreme disorientation that ensued in the aftermath of Auschwitz. Whatever critics choose to call him, we require his witness."
"Concentration camp survivor Appelfeld delivers a beautifully written, deeply disturbing tale of pilgrims en route to Jerusalem in pre-WW II Eastern Europe . . . . His gorgeous writing creates a stirring atmosphere, while Laish's observations and experiences illustrate some harsh truths about survival."
"A quite narrative of high expectation and muted desperation . . . . Appelfeld writes in an unadorned yet forceful style . . . that is, paradoxically, low-key and intense."