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NOTE: This memoir was WINNER of the August Prize, Sweden’s prize for Best Book of the Year, in 2012.

“You [survivors] are all very lonely, I imagine.  As lonely as the inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto when they heard the music and laughter from the carousel in Krasinski Park.  As lonely as the last people in a world that no longer exists, and which the people in the world that now exists have already forgotten.  Even before the fire is out, they’ve already forgotten the flames.  You are very lonely at the station at Radogoszcz.”—Goran Rosenberg, speaking to the memory of his father.

Imagining his father waiting at the train station outside of Auschwitz from which he has just been liberated, Swedish author Goran Rosenberg, the child of two Jewish Holocaust survivors from Poland, has decided to begin his memoir about his father with his father’s journey to Sweden, where he plans to live but where he knows no one.  There, his father will  close the book on his incarceration at Auschwitz and his earlier life in Poland and settle down to make a new life.  In his early twenties and weighing just over eighty pounds when he arrives in Sweden, David Rosenberg must find and then arrange for his future wife Hala to join him after a two-year separation.  She was trapped in the starving ghetto of Lodz while he was imprisoned at Auschwitz. In Sweden, he finds work in Sodertalje, a small industrial town, as a pipe-fitter for a company that makes trucks.  Eventually, he and Hala reunite and marry, settling into life in a one-room apartment in the building below the railroad station where David first arrived in 1947. For Goran, the son later born to them, “This [town] is the Place.  This is where my world assumes its first colors, lights, smells, sounds, voices…This is the Place that will continue to form me even when I’m convinced that I’ve formed myself.”

From the earliest beginnings of his life, Goran Rosenberg has been aware that his world is very different from that of his parents, that “they carry an entirely different world around with them…A great deal of what they can’t remember, or don’t want to remember, they cannot forget.”  Everything reminds them of something else and somewhere else, and it is the child who is the only thing that binds them to the Place. If the child can make the Place his own, “a new world becomes possible for them as well,” and maybe they will find themselves becoming residents instead of simply “survivors.”  They make sure that the boy speaks Swedish and not Polish or Yiddish, that he has books and goes to school and has friends and gets in trouble with them, like any other boy.  As Goran grows up, however, he becomes increasingly aware that his father seems to have neither past nor future, that the town in which they live provides no link to his father’s life elsewhere, no common language, no family, no long-time friends, no memories, and no sense of home.  And there are always shadows, hovering.

David, Goran, and Hala Rosenberg, ca. 1951

The author’s decision to trace every aspect of his father’s life in an effort to understand him better and to understand not just the horrors of the Holocaust but also the horrors of survival in a world that is determined to forget gives his memoir a sharp focus, unlike so many other books about the war which concentrate more on the Holocaust than on the “recovery.” Goran Rosenberg wants to know how his father’s ability to survive these horrors was affected by everything that happened before, during, and after the war, and especially by the institutionalized failure of most of the world to acknowledge and atone for the horrors.  A journalist and researcher, Goran Rosenberg delves into records throughout Europe to find answers, raising questions about the elements of chance that led some people to survive and some to be exterminated or die from disease or starvation; about the “invisible wall” between survivors, like his father, and the residents of their town;  about the lack of enough Jewish citizens in town to enjoy a “Jewish life” or to celebrate holidays; about the restlessness, the need to travel, and the constant desire to move elsewhere in an effort to find a “home” in the aftermath of war; and, ultimately, about the “forgetfulness” of the other residents of the community.

This photo from Sodertalje accompanies a recent PBS story which is entitled, ironically, "Sweden: Safe Haven for Iraqis."

The book unspools in a circular fashion which follows themes and patterns, instead of a chronological timeline, as the author recreates the lives of the family, especially that of David Rosenberg, his father, within their environment in Sodertalje. The author’s own memories from about the age of three until the present provide a perspective on his father which, in its innocence, becomes particularly affecting.  Readers will see difficulties in events which Goran, in his innocence, accepts as just part of his life, and as Goran-the-author provides serious research, facts, and figures about survivors and their problems, and specific stories about his father’s own search for satisfaction in a new world, the sadness of his seeming failure becomes increasingly moving, fraught with emotion.

Mordechai Rumkowsky, the "Emperor of Lies," was the Jewish Mayor of Lodz during the Nazi occupation. His decisions to sacrifice some of his people "for the good of the whole" are among the horrors noted here.

A ray of hope emerges for all the survivors when the West German government is required by the victorious powers to compensate the survivors of atrocities with money. “To be considered for German reparations the survivors have to prove that their time in Auschwitz, Stutthof, Wobbelin or their equivalents has inflicted permanent damage” – defined as 25 percent of their capacity for work. Psychological damage does not count.  As it is the German state itself which decides which survivors receive reparations and how much, it will come as no surprise that long, complicated forms, to be written in German, must show in minute detail the survivor’s “25 percent damage” as a result of Hitler’s policies.  Certified transcripts of witness statements and certified copies of medical records by physicians who will attest to the damage, in German, are also required. If a statement is inexact or incomplete, the reparations are refused.  Likewise, if a record is missing as a result of the war, reparations are refused.  “The slightest error can turn the survivor into a liar and a fraud.”  And after all, how does one determine the “25 percent of work capacity”?  For the survivors, the process of applying for reparations “does as much harm as good,” and many readers will be appalled to read the stories of how these damaged survivors are treated – once again.

"From the carousel in Krasinski Park in the spring of 1943, you can see and hear the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto."

Goran Rosenberg’s memoir, monumental in its insights into post-war survival, clear and unequivocal in its presentation of facts, artistic and beautifully written, and emotionally involving for the reader, makes the Rosenberg family, with its difficulties and its triumphs, more than the story of one family, however much we want them to succeed.  Through this memoir, Goran Rosenberg makes them symbolic of all the survivors of this terrible war as they try also to survive their survivorhood.

Note: Translator Sarah Death retains the clarity and realism of this memoir while also conveying the emotional power of a writer’s story of his father’s damaged life.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://hbl.fi/kultur/

The picture of David, Goran, and Hala Rosenberg appears in the book and is reprinted here: http://www.newstatesman.com/

Sodertalje, the town of David Rosenberg, is the subject of a recent PBS special about the city as a “haven for Iraqis.”  http://www.pbs.org

Mordechai Rumkowsky, the Jewish Mayor of the ghetto of Lodz, worked with the Nazis during the war, sometimes sacrificing groups of citizens “for the good of the whole,” described in an episode here that is chilling.  David Sem-Sandburg’s book, THE EMPEROR OF LIES is reviewed here.  The photo of Rumkowsky giving a speech is seen here:  http://www.yadvashem.org/

The quotation at the beginning of this review refers to the Carousel in Krasinski Park, Warsaw, where in 1943, citizens could ride the carousel and see and hear the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto.  The illustration here is from a children’s book called The Cats in Krasinski Square by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Wendy Watson. http://thechildrenswar.blogspot.com

ARC:  Other Press

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do for them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” ― Dorothy Parker, The Collected Dorothy Parker

“The gun’s not loaded.  I don’t even have bullets…Go see for yourself.  It’s in the night table under my copy of Strunk and White.”  Audrey, in Dorothy Parker Drank Here

With a recommendation from Dorothy Parker, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style may never have had it so good in terms of publicity.  Standing the test of time from its earliest edition in 1918 to its latest (fourth) edition as a “paperback picture book” in 1999, it remains a standard in English classrooms around the country.  Parker herself, of course, used the English language to perfection, bending it to her will and molding it with her ascerbic humor, sarcasm, and caustic wit, often flicking it like a switchblade in her satiric commentaries.  Parker, a charter member of the Round Table, was part of a group of about a dozen novelists, dramatists, and critics who met for lunch almost daily at New York’s Algonquin Hotel, where many of them had apartments or studios throughout the 1920s.  Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, Robert Sherwood, and Alexander Woollcott, among the regulars, were often joined by guests like Edna Ferber, Harpo Marx, and Tallulah Bankhead.  All of them prized the written and spoken word, had no tolerance for verbal laziness, and gave no quarter when it came to saying exactly what they thought in unequivocal terms.

Ellen Meister photo by Hy Goldberg, Visions Photography

Ellen Meister, author of Dorothy Parker Drank Here, the second novel in a series in which the ghost of Dorothy Parker (1893 – 1967) is a main character, has set this novel at the Algonquin Hotel, where Parker’s spirit still resides, thanks to the fact that Parker once signed an old guest book on display in the Algonquin’s Blue Bar.  Her signature, like those of other Round Table members, guarantees that her spirit will not leave the earth until it has decided it wants to go.  If the guest book remains open to the page on which she has signed, Parker’s spirit, like those of other signers, may appear and reappear at will.  If the book is closed, her spirit disappears, and if the book is moved, her spirit goes with it.  Within this context, the author tells a story in which the main earth-bound character – in this case, Norah Wolfe, a young assistant producer of a TV talk show – is trying to contact Ted Shriver, a real person from the present whom she believes is staying at the  Algonquin.  Shriver, a successful writer, vanished from the literary scene twenty years ago because three paragraphs of plagiarized material appeared in his last published book, and he could never explain how those alien paragraphs appeared.  He has withdrawn from the world and lived as a recluse ever since. Since Shriver’s book Dobson’s Night saved Norah’s emotional life when she was a teenager, however, she wants desperately to contact him and, if she is lucky, get an interview for her TV program.

Entrance to the Algonquin Hotel, 59 West 44th Street, New York, NY 10036

Dorothy Parker, lonely in her ghostly life, wants to persuade Ted Shriver, who is dying, to sign the special guest book and keep her company at the Algonquin after his death.  All the others from the Round Table have followed the white light to meet family and friends on the other side, something Parker refuses to do. When Norah, by accident, ends up with this guest book in her own room at the Algonquin, Dorothy Parker materializes there to offer advice, and when asked about what it is like to be in the kind of limbo in which she lives, Parker replies, characteristically, “It’s like sleeping, except I never wake up next to a man I regret taking to bed.  On the other hand, I never wake up with a hangover.”  Eventually, the two join forces – both need Ted Shriver’s help.  A third plot line concerns Audrey Hudson, Ted’s wife at the time of the plagiarism and the person most likely to have planted the plagiarized paragraphs in Ted’s manuscript.  When Norah calls on her, however, she discovers that Audrey’s fragility is much like her own, and as Norah’s past is revealed, her need to connect with Ted Shriver, author of the book which dominated her teen years, becomes clearer.

The Blue Bar, Algonquin Hotel. The mysterious guest book was displayed here.

Writing this as pure entertainment, the author pulls out all the stops, juggling these plot lines and keeping them moving in surprising ways.  She plays on the reader’s interest in the characters and their connections to books and writing as she also develops an atmosphere which crosses timelines.  With a light, sure touch, she puts together some hilarious visual scenes which beg to be filmed, and it is easy to imagine her sitting at her computer with a grin on her face as she writes.  Meister’s “Dorothy Parker” feels true to what we know about Parker, not a caricature created for the sake of amusement, and Parker’s interactions with other literary characters and their often hilarious patter, bring the whole literary scene to life.  Her scenes with Tallulah Bankhead, Groucho Marx, and Lillian Hellman, and her opinions of Alexander Woollcott and Dashiell Hammett made me wish I could have been there, too.

Painting of the famous Round Table from the 1920s, a mural in the dining room of the Algonquin Hotel. Dorothy Parker is wearing the hat, on the left. Robert Benchley is above her. Mathilde, the hotel cat, is seen upside down in Benchley's pipe smoke. Click to enlarge

Tallulah Bankhead, in talking about her own death, for example, comments, “It’s been ages since I’ve been able to enjoy a smoke, and even longer since a drink could offer me any sort of pleasure.  Do you know what my last word was?  ‘Bourbon!’  Couldn’t get a breath of air and all I wanted was a belt of Wild Turkey.”  To which Parker responds:  “Not a bad parting line.  I’m sure they’ll quote it in your obituary.”  The Groucho Marx scene, filled with the kinds of puns and word play for which he became famous on TV, and the Lillian Hellman scene both give insights into their relationships with Parker:  Hellman, despite being made the executor of Parker’s will, was left no money, and she is furious. Parker’s criticism of Hellman for writing a memoir that is mostly fiction, and her opinion of Hellman’s lover Dashiell Hammett (“a hell of a writer, but a brutal son of a bitch”) are pointed.

Lobby, Algonquin Hotel

Filled with literary nuggets which show that the author “did her homework” and had fun doing it, Dorothy Parker Drank Here will delight readers looking for a fast-moving and  amusing change of pace which includes some memorable sketches of early- and middle- twentieth century American authors.  For any reader who may also be familiar with the Algonquin Hotel, its dining room, Blue Bar, narrow halls, and quiet rooms, the novel becomes a must-read.  The Algonquin should put this book on display at the sign-in desk.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo, by Hy Goldberg, is from her website:  http://ellenmeister.com/

The Algonquin hotel, 59 West 44th Street, New York, NY 10036, is shown on http://www.hauntworld.com

The Blue Bar at the Algonquin may be found on http://www.yelp.com/

The painting of the Algonquin Round Table is seen here: http://www.pbs.org Double click to enlarge.

The newly restored lobby of the Algonquin is from http://www.booked.net/

ARC: Putnam

Note: Author Alejandro Zambra was WINNER of Chile’s National Critics’ Prize for his novella, Bonsai, in 2006.

“It’s nighttime, it’s always nighttime when the text comes to an end. I re-read, rephrase sentences, specify names. I try to remember better: more, and better. I cut and paste, change and enlarge the font, play with line spacing. I think about closing this file and leaving it forever in the My Documents folder. But I’m going to publish it, I want to, even though it’s not finished, even though it’s impossible to finish it.”—the author, in his story “My Documents.”

Described as “the greatest writer of Chile’s younger generation,” author Alejandro Zambra has created eleven stories so firmly grounded in reality and filled with carefully chosen detail that they seem to be from his own life, though it is impossible to know for sure without hearing more from the author himself.  Likewise, we cannot know how much may be inspired by his own life but altered for the purpose of improving the story, or how much may be created from whole cloth for the purpose of recreating a period in history or illustrating a theme. Ultimately, this collection of stories vibrantly recreates an unusual childhood from the perspective of a child, while also revealing the speaker’s early adulthood and his lack of confidence in his own maturity.  In several stories, the author conveys the feelings at the heart of parent-child relationships, from the points of view of both; political revolution and trauma lurk in the background throughout all the stories.  As he wrestles with his stories and how to present the personal and community values of Chile during this period in the late twentieth century, the author also contributes much to our understanding of the art of writing itself.  Ultimately, these intense, compressed, clear, and unpretentious stories breathe with quiet life, focused on reality as a simple, if sometimes heart-breaking, concept.

The long opening story, “My Documents,” clearly establishes the time, place, characters, and atmosphere by introducing the main character at age four or five, when, in 1980, he sees a computer for the first time, an enormous machine used by his father, quite different from the electric typewriter of his father’s secretary, or the black Olivetti on which his mother does her typing work, transcribing songs, stories, and poems written by his grandmother.  The speaker learns how to type his name but prefers using the keyboard to imitate drumrolls instead, remembering the drum major in the marching band at his school, before veering off into a discussion of his Catholic education, the music of Simon and Garfunkel, and the local competitions in kite-flying and the tricks used to win.  By 1986, the speaker tells us, he has lied to become an altar boy, a task he honors for over a year while convinced he is going to die because he has been taking Communion “illegally.”

Margaret Thatcher was a friend of Augusto Pinochet during his whole career, selling him weapons and providing supplies for Chile during the Falklands War in 1982. Richard Nixon was also a supporter of Pinochet.

This extended story continues with speaker’s first “adult” discovery in 1986 when, at age eleven, he learns of Augusto Pinochet’s human rights abuses of citizens who were arrested, tortured, murdered, or disappeared.  These crimes are described peripherally, with occasional additional references throughout the book, during Pinochet’s dictatorship from 1973 – 1990, and up to 1998 while he was still Commander in Chief of the army. In college by 1994, the speaker is on his own by 1997, and by 1999, he has bought his first computer, an immense Olidata. In 2013, when he is in his late thirties, this chapter ends.   The author announces that he has now completed this book, and as he ponders the idea of simply closing his My Documents file, he determines to publish it instead, announcing that “My father was a computer, my mother a typewriter.  I was a blank page, and now I am a book.”

Famed Chilean goalie Condor Rojas was a hero to the speaker and Camilo, until he participated in a hoax during a championship game against Brazil in 1989 . See photo credits for more information.

The story “Camilo” follows a similar pattern to that of the first story, “My Documents,” in that it begins when the speaker is very young and ends decades later.  The speaker is nine when Camilo shows up at their gate and explains that he is the speaker’s father’s godson.  With an interest in rock bands, rather than soccer, which the speaker and his father watch every week, Camilo and the speaker have little in common, but Camilo is a gregarious teenage friend who soon becomes “a benevolent and protective presence.”  In return the speaker and his father take Camilo to soccer games, which the speaker’s father and Camilo’s father had played together.  Gradually, we learn that Camilo is helping the young speaker with his problems with obsessive compulsive disorder. Eventually, the boys attend the Chile-Brazil playoffs leading to the World Cup in 1990, rooting wildly for Condor Rojas, Chile’s goalie, the speaker’s favorite player because his own father plays that position on a local team.  A devastating scandal which arises regarding Rojas, is discussed further, with photos, in the link given in the footnotes here. Camilo later goes to France to reconnect with his father, and, twenty-two years later, the speaker meets with Camilo’s father in Amsterdam.  Moving and thoughtful, the story carries a message about time and chance which will resonate with all readers.

While he is trying to give up smoking, the speaker must deal with migraines. He finds Oliver Sachs's book, Migraine, especially helpful.

Subsequent stories deal with the fact that most of us are alone most of the time. “True or False,” concerns a divorced man whose son visits every two weeks.  The boy considers his father’s house to be the “false house” and his mother’s house to be the “true house.” Knowing this, the father gets a cat to make the house feel more like home, but when the cat later has kittens, a problem arises, and leads to a surprise conclusion.  “I Smoked Very Well,” one of my favorites, is about a writer who decides to give up smoking and discovers that it affects the whole writing process, the reading process, and the general socializing that provides inspiration for his work.  “Family Life” and “Thank You” deal with situations in which women become victims who have too little control over their destinies, which are controlled by men, sometimes because the women allow it.  “Artist’s Rendition,” another story about writing, deals with a reality which becomes fiction while the fiction becomes reality.

In "The Most Chilean Man in the World," the main character goes to Leuven, Belgium, where he contemplates this bizarre fountain in which a stylized figure tries to find the formula for happiness in a book.

Six of these stories, told from the first person point of view, and five from the third person, are grouped to suggest that the first person stories really are about the author’s own life while the third person stories are about life as Zambra would interpret it if he were the main character.  His first person narrators speak intimately, as if the author is addressing his reader directly, while the third person, more distanced, expands the author’s themes, ideas, and images beyond the realm of his own life into the wider world.  In this way, he creates a kind of déjà vu for the reader by filling his narrative with small details his characters remember because of their personal importance at a particular place and time, and most readers will immediately recognize the parallels from their own lives in the small images which forever stick in their own minds and bring back major events.  This extraordinary and profound collection makes writing look easy.   If you love good writing with an unusual series of unpretentious voices and a surprising amount of humor and irony, don’t miss this.


A special note of congratulations to translator Megan McDowell, who was also the translator for THE PRIVATE LIVES OF TREES.  Translating a book in which the author has been particularly careful in his own word choice requires enormous care from the translator to convey the same feelings and images.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://www.vice.com

Margaret Thatcher was a friend of Augusto Pinochet  during his whole career, selling him weapons and providing supplies for Chile during the Falklands War in 1982. He was arrested in England on a warrant from Spain for human rights abuses in 1998 and spent 1 1/2 years in prison in the UK. After his release he was under house arrest in Chile for the rest of his life.  He died in 2006.  The US under Richard Nixon was also a supporter of Pinochet.  Photo from:  http://www.ibtimes.com/

The story of the hoax perpetrated by Condor Rojas during a championship game against Brazil in 1989, may be found here:  http://colgadosporelfutbol.com/la-mayor-farsa-de-la-historia-del-futbol/. The photo posted here is from http://www.fotolog.com

Migraine by Oliver Sachs was helpful to the speaker when he was dealing with migraines during his efforts to give up smoking in “I Smoked Very Well.”   See http://en.wikipedia.org/

When Rodrigo in “The Most Chilean Man in the World” goes to Leuven, Belgium, in pursuit of a woman, he spends time looking at this bizarre little fountain which shows a stylized boy/man reading a book in which he is hoping to gain the secret of happiness.  Photo from https://lenzu.wordpress.com

ARC: from McSweeney’s

“When he embarked on his ambitious…project of writing about Hitler in the first person, [Aaron Gotthilf] sincerely believed that…giving voice to Hitler [was] not only a legitimate literary device that should be accepted in the framework of the principle of freedom of expression but an important tool in advancing our understanding of the horrors of the twentieth century.  ‘Hitler was a human being,’ he stress[ed], ‘and as such, he is not beyond the bounds of explanation.’ ”

In this stimulating experimental novel in which Israeli author Gail Hareven plays with the boundaries of reality and fiction, truth and lies, Aaron Gotthilf’s book, Hitler, First Person plays a key role.  Whether or not an Aaron Gotthilf really existed and whether or not his book was real is irrelevant to the writing of Hareven’s book and its themes.  Most readers here will probably agree that a fictional depiction of Adolf Hitler as a “real,” and presumably sympathetic, human being would be too small a gesture to “advance our understanding of the horrors of the twentieth century” in any meaningful way, but the idea that it might is just one of the many twists, turns, ironies, tours de force, and even dark-humored reversals that take place in this extraordinary novel.  To tell her own story, Hareven creates another author, Elinor Gotthilf from Jerusalem, who is a cousin, once removed, of the “Aaron Gotthilf” who wrote one of the most controversial novels ever published, a book published and circulated in Europe, but never released in Israel.  One important Holocaust researcher described this book as a “vile piece of filth not worthy of relating to.”

Author photo by Ouria Tadmor

Elinor tells her own story in the first person, explaining that she has avoided her cousin Aaron for most of her adult life.  When she was a young student and Aaron needed a place to write his book, he had stayed at her family’s “Pension Gotthilf,” a modest hotel, and she equates his stay there with the Devil/Serpent inserting himself into the Garden of Eden, images which repeat on many levels throughout the novel.  It gives nothing away to say that while he was at the pension writing, he abused Elinor’s “slow” older sister Elisheva, requiring her to read The 120 Days of Sodom aloud to him and repeatedly raping her. Her sister’s abortion, her mother’s mental breakdown, and the dissolution of her family were sad by-products of this abuse. Now Aaron, whom she calls “Not-Man,” plans to return to Jerusalem from abroad to attend a writing conference, and though he has publicly recanted his former beliefs about Hitler, claiming that he is working on another book in which he refutes everything he has said in the past, Elinor fears for the future.

Hareven’s approach to her novel is thoughtful and literary, despite the novel’s surprises and reversals.  She incorporates a broad artistic and philosophical history within its structure, and though the novel contains some elements of a mystery novel, these are subordinated to the stories and experiences of the people, especially Elinor, who live within the novel and grow (or not) from their actions as they confront their own hatred during their search for justice and truth.  In a great irony, Elinor warns the reader that “You should never believe writers, even when they pretend to be telling the truth.  Everything that’s written here is pure fiction.” She goes on to say that “None of the characters that appear here, myself included, are real.”  But as the reader is digesting all this, Elinor also informs us that her husband is a lawyer and that she has written this disclaimer at the front of the novel on his advice.

The Basilica of the Agony, also known as The Church of All Nations in Jerusalem, is where Alice has an adventure near the conclusion of the book. This is "the place where the fear of death had come upon Jesus."

For many years, Elinor has been the author of a newspaper series about Alice, a young girl, an alterego of sorts, about whom she has written hundreds of columns over the years as Alice travels from place to place, reporting on what she sees. Naive and clueless, Alice is “ignorant of our great stern beliefs, ignorant of the history and customs of the place,” much like Alice in Wonderland.  Elinor, her creator, on the other hand, thinks of herself as grounded in reality.  She has been married for over twenty-five years to Oded Brandeis, a successful lawyer, and they have two sons, who are studying in the US.  When Elinor discovers that Aaron has tracked down her family and would like to reconnect, she takes a leave from her “Alice columns” and determines to go to the US to warn her sister Elisheva that Aaron may also be searching for her. Elisheva, now happily married is living in the US and enjoying a peaceful life and her role as mother to a young daughter.

Aaron Westerman, who posted this photo, has posted a rave review of Hareven's novel on his own site. Double click to get to it.

On the plane to the US to see her sister, Elinor reads Hitler, First Person, one of the crazy high points of the novel.  “Surrealistic memories and visions of death” remind her of Salvador Dali, as the morbid focus on death and the possibility of necrophilia causes the speaker of Hitler to observe his dying comrades with “spellbound” interest.” He imagines great conflagrations, sees himself as Jesus, but includes monologues by Satan.

When, upon Elinor’s later return to Jerusalem, Elinor’s father-in-law receives an invitation to attend a talk by Aaron Gotthilf at the conference, he suggests that “None of us is pure and we are all influenced by considerations of personal interest.”  Elinor, offended by the idea that we all have a little bit of Hitler inside us, responds by contrasting him to George Orwell who fought both the Fascists and the Bolsheviks, endured censorship for being truthful, never “ignored or concealed [the truth]…and [was] always been able to recognize Satan in all his disguises.” She wants no forgiveness for Aaron Gotthilf on any level.

Photo of George Orwell by Deviant Art. George Orwell is used by Elinor as an example of a writer who abides by his values, unlike Aaron Gotthilf.

The novel moves back and forth and around in circular fashion, and while the characters are thin, the author has created a novel which is a never-ending source of surprise and intrigue.  Ultimately, Elinor and Oded develop a plan to deal with Aaron Gotthilf when/if they meet him, and as they put their plan into action, the author creates an electrifying conclusion filled with dark irony and an unusual twist.  Hareven raises the question of whether, if ever, it is possible to forgive someone like Hitler, and whether it is appropriate to do so, keeping the issues of evil and forgiveness front and center and the novel’s focus on serious moral and ethical issues. On my Favorites List, 2015.

Note: Dalya Bilu’s lively translation preserves the novel’s dark humor at the same time that it reflects the seriousness of the themes.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo by Ouria Tadmor appears on http://forward.com/articles

The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade is shown on https://justanotherbookworm.wordpress.com

The photo of the Basilica of the Agony, also known as the Church of All Nations, in Gethsemane, is  by Poco a poco – “Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons” - and may be found at http://commons.wikimedia.org/ This is the place where Alice has an adventure during the time that Elinor and Oded are dealing with the arrival of Aaron Gotthilf in Jerusalem.  Alice’s story of three men – the Jew, the Christian, and the Muslim – is a dark classic.

The cover of Hitler, First Person is from http://www.typographicalera.com/lies-first-person-gail-hareven/ Aaron Westerman’s rave review of Hareven’s book includes this photo of Gotthilf’s book cover.

George Orwell is used by Elinor as an example of a writer who abides by his values, unlike Aaron Gotthilf.  Orwell, who had fought both the Bolsheviks and the Fascists, “hadn’t beautified any aspect of reality and hadn’t covered anything up, and…he had seen what others preferred not to see, and…he hadn’t ignored or concealed, and…he had always been able to recognize Satan in all is disguises.  Photo here: http://airshipdaily.com

ARC:  Open Letter


Note: Mo Yan was WINNER of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012.  In 2011, this novel, Frog, was WINNER of the prestigious Mao Dun Literary Prize, awarded every four years by the Chinese Writers Association.  Mo Yan’s novel Big Breasts and Wide Hips was WINNER of the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007.

“One gazes upon China’s Great Wall or the Egyptian pyramids without a thought to the blanched bones buried beneath these magnificent edifices.  Over the past two decades, China has resolved the problem of its population explosion by draconian measures, not only for the sake of the country’s development, but as a contribution to humanity…We [all] live together on this tiny planet, with its finite resources.”—Tadpole, the novel’s speaker.

When Chinese author Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012, controversy swirled.  Mo has been able to publish his works in China because he works within the existing communist system and is considered part of the establishment in China, while other talented but less discreet Chinese writers are prohibited from publishing without serious censorship, and in some cases feel they must leave China in order to write from the heart.  Famed writer Ha Jin, for example, was an exchange student at Brandeis University when the devastating Tiananmen Square uprising took place in 1989, and he chose to emigrate and stay in the United States at that point. In extreme cases, such as that of writer Liu Xiaobao, who in 2009 was tried and convicted  in China for “inciting subversion of state power,” writers have been jailed – in Liu’s case for eleven years.  Liu had challenged the regime directly as one of the authors of the “Charter 08 Manifesto” for human rights.  Mo, on the other hand, has always lived a quieter, less attention-seeking life. His focus on the small communities in which he has lived allows him to create “small fry” characters with all their quirks and peculiarities, and through them to depict everyday life and provide rare insights for non-Chinese readers.  His unusual perspective adds up to grand ideas for the reader, even within the “establishment.”

Author photograph by Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

In this novel, Mo’s speaker is Tadpole, also known as Wan Zu or Xiaopao, who writes letters to his Japanese teacher, Sugitani Akihito, from 2002 to 2009.  Sugitani has taught a writing class to Tadpole and others in Beijing, and on one occasion, Tadpole takes him to meet his Aunt Gugu, a woman who has worked as a rural obstetrician for more than fifty years.  Gugu, a fearless woman who has seen and done it all – before, during and after China’s “one-child” policy – serves as a model for Sugitani’s writing class when he suggests that the class write about her.  One student decides to write a novel about Gugu’s life, and Tadpole decides to write a play.  As he works on his writing project and reports to the sensei over the next few years, Tadpole recreates all aspects of Gugu’s personal and professional life, beginning in 1960 and continuing to the present.  He vividly reconstructs several historical periods, from the famine of the late 1950s through the country’s efforts at population control, stressing the emotional effects of these policies, not just on the poor population but on medical personnel themselves.  The immediacy and honesty of Tadpole’s writing to his teacher, and the powerful personality of Gugu herself combine to expand the issues of population control from the small community in Gaomi County, where they all live, to the population at large.  The world “writ small” inevitably becomes the world “writ large.”

Gugu's Enicar watch from Switzerland was the most exotic thing any of the children of Gaomi had ever seen, a present from her fiance in 1955.

Including side bars throughout, in which he talks about such topics as the choices of names (in Tadpole’s community, many personal names are the names of body parts, like Gallbladder and Cheek) and branching out into traditional stories, and occasional tales of animals and legends, the author first introduces the subject of famine in 1960, through the casually told and “amusing” story of the children eating pieces of coal and exclaiming over how tasty it is.  Gugu, Tadpole’s aunt, is working in obstetrics during this period, and by 1961, she notes that “over a two-year period…not a single infant was born in any of the more than forty villages that made up the People’s commune.” The reason was not any government policy.  It was, instead, a result of the famine.  Even in the midst of famine, however, life somehow goes on, and for Tadpole, Gugu’s reputation at this time is symbolized not by her dedication, but by the relatively simple Swiss Enicar wristwatch that she wears, an “exotic” gift unlike anything anyone in town has ever seen before, given by her fiancé, an air force pilot.

A scene in Gaomi, where the novel takes place. Harvested corn, the current leading crop, has apparently replaced the sweet potatoes of this novel.

In 1962, an unexpectedly large sweet potato harvest changes lives, and people begin referring to the “sweet potato babies.”  Almost three thousand babies are born that year in fifty-two villages.  Gugu and her fellow physician (and nemesis) Huang together deliver eight hundred-eighty babies in five months.  Alarmed by the difficulty of feeding this burgeoning population, the government begins suggesting that people limit families to just two babies.  Soon control becomes more stringent. Gugu begins advocating family planning, birth control, and eventually vasectomies.  Still later, abortion becomes not only an option but eventually a requirement for many. The emotional effects of often late-term abortions on families is horrifying, as the reader sees through Tadpole, his wife, and his contemporaries in the community.  And while maternal deaths as a result of late-term abortions cause untold agony, barren couples also experience a sense of loss and begin to resort to using surrogates, made possible through the connivance of low level party members engaged in a variety of illegal “private” enterprises.

Oriole (female) in peach orchard, an image which takes on symbolic meaning forTadpole when he visits the graves of his mother and deceased wife on the eve of his remarriage. Photo by Lynda Goff.

The author varies his styles throughout this broad picture of late twentieth century
China.  When one character tries to get his father to have a vasectomy, the action devolves into slapstick comedy featuring a saber, a pigpen, and a chase.  Another scene, totally different, in which a character is about to remarry, is emotionally moving and symbolic: The widower on the day of his remarriage visits his mother’s grave and that of his deceased wife and sees a whirlwind.  “At that moment an oriole in a peach tree released a long cheerless call that nearly tore my insides apart.”  He quietly leaves ripened peaches on the graves, making promises to his deceased family. Ultimately, Tadpole’s play, called Frog, is reproduced within the novel, adding a touch of magical realism and fantasy to the ending of the novel.  Many themes related to reproduction and contraception, and many different literary styles highlight the individualized characters here, as Mo Yan takes on fifty years of history and a wide variety of characters to bring rural China alive in ways completely unfamiliar to most western audiences.

Mo Yan's 90-year-old father Guan Yifan sits in front of the house in which Mo grew up in Gaomi.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo by Ed Jones of AFP, Getty Images appears on http://www.theguardian.com

The Enicar Swiss watch was the most exotic possession any of the children in Gaomi had ever seen when Gugu began wearing it in 1955.  http://www.cjbalm.com/

Gaomi, where author Mo Yan grew up, now grows corn as its main crop, replacing the sweet potatoes which were the biggest crop in 1962. http://www.avaxnews.net

A symbolic scene takes place when Tadpole sees an oriole in a peach orchard when he goes to the cemetery to pay his respects to his mother and his first wife.  Photo by Lynda Goff: http://lyndagoff.com/taxonomies/orchard-oriole/ Many other wonderful bird photos appear on this site.

The photo of Mo’s father, in front of Mo’s childhood house, appears on http://www.theguardian.com/

ARC: Viking Press

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