Arts & Culture

A Religion of Loneliness

“My roots are cut off like stumps, and sometimes I feel the pain inside the wounds.” These are the words of Laish, the child-narrator of the novel by the same name, written by Aharon Appelfeld and newly translated by Aloma … Read More

By / April 27, 2009

“My roots are cut off like stumps, and sometimes I feel the pain inside the wounds.” These are the words of Laish, the child-narrator of the novel by the same name, written by Aharon Appelfeld and newly translated by Aloma Halter. A fifteen-year-old orphan, Laish is part of a convoy of Eastern European Jews that, at the end of the 19th century, is making its way, by horse and wagon, slowly, painfully, towards the Promised Land. The convoy includes merchants and thieves, rabbis and convicts, widows, the ill, and even a madwoman who lives in a portable cage. Ostensibly, the only thing uniting them is a common destination. But underlying this aspiration there seems to be a much deeper bond, one born out of a shared sense of rootlessness, of a loneliness that is uniquely Jewish. It’s a loneliness that Appelfeld, an orphaned child survivor of the Holocaust, knows well. Appelfeld’s mother was killed by the Nazis when he was eight; he became separated from his father during the war, and was reunited with him, for the first time, twenty years later. After escaping a concentration camp, he spent several years wandering across Europe before finally finding his way to Israel. One hears echoes of Appelfeld’s own tragic childhood in the voice of Laish. When a woman on the convoy tells Laish that they are nearing the town where his deceased mother, whom he does not remember, was born, he is stunned. “This thought that I once had a mother, and that we were now approaching the town where she was born, moved me greatly.” Later on, Laish, who is repeatedly abused by men he refers to as the “dealers,” people who seem to have joined the convoy out of sheer desire to manipulate others, prays to his mother, asking her to save him. “For some reason, I’m sure that my mother is trying with her entire soul to intercede on my behalf,” he says. “Her willingness to endanger herself fills me with courage.” The narratorial voice in this novel is chillingly real—so simple, yet so sincere. It’s a voice that may have its origins in the author’s initial experiences writing in Hebrew, a language he only learned as a teenager. Arriving in Israel at 14, uneducated and alone, Appelfeld first began writing before he was really “rooted in the language” and the culture, making his earliest attempts “more a kind of stuttering than writing,” the author once said. In Laish , words aren’t just words; they are the stammerings of the lost and confused. Laish is hardly an eloquent narrator. His sentences are often clumsy and he tends to repeat himself. One has an image of this narrator as a wide-eyed observer who meticulously records the world around him. Referring to a fellow convoy member called Blind Menachem, Laish notes, with some surprise, that he is, apparently, “not so simple.” Instead, he says, Menachem, though blind, “takes in everything that goes on around him. . . and not the slightest detail escapes him,” much, it seems, like Laish himself. It is thus fitting that when one of the older men senses that he is about to die, he entrusts to Laish a notebook in which the names of the dead are to be recorded, according to date of death. One of Israel’s most revered authors, Appelfeld has published more than twenty works, including novels, short story collections and a memoir, many of which explore the Holocaust, albeit often indirectly. Though set decades before the war, Laish, too, evokes the Holocaust as it confronts issues of loss and pain and of an interminable, unending sense of wandering in a vast, unfriendly world. Through the eyes of the narrator, we become witness to the ruthlessness of fate, to man’s capacity for cruelty, and to the faint but persistent beating of the human heart that is driven, against all odds, to survive. Like the narrator of this novel, its author has said that he sees himself as an observer, with life a “kind of permanent attempt to understand myself, to observe the surroundings . . .” In this, Appelfeld brings to mind another Holocaust author, Primo Levi , who, in an interview with American novelist Philip Roth, once said, “I never stopped recording the world and people around me, so much that I still have an unbelievably detailed image of them. I had an intense wish to understand, I was constantly pervaded by a curiosity." It’s as if, in a world where so much has already been lost, the only thing left is to closely observe one’s surroundings. As if, somehow, by doing so, one manages to hold onto life, to survive. While Appelfeld’s writing today is far from stuttering, his bare style and Hemingway-esque prose retain the childlike, innocent, even naïve quality of uncertain stutterings. In the world of Laish, populated by individuals driven as much by a search for future meaning as by a reckoning with the past, uncertainty may represent the only true attempt at communication. In a sense, it is the ultimate language of loss. In Laish, uncertainty looms large. In particular, the viability of the convoy’s mission is constantly thrown into question. Numerous delays and distractions over the course of many years cast into doubt the possibility of reaching Jerusalem altogether. Thefts, heavy rains, attacks by passing strangers, infighting among the group and an outbreak of typhoid, interrupt the course of the journey, time and again. By the time the group finally reaches the port city of Galacz, towards the novel’s end, its numbers severely dwindled as a result of deaths and abandonment, it lacks the funds necessary to pay its way to Jerusalem, and the situation seems bleaker than ever. In the end, through one culminating act of cruelty in which the group attacks and robs one of its own in order to finance their trip, the convoy does make it onto the ship. But the novel breaks off here, and heaven only knows what disasters await the group on board and at sea. While Laish is very much wrapped around the question of whether the group will make it to Jerusalem, Appelfeld’s novel is ultimately a story about wandering. In particular, the subtext of this novel seems to be about the journeying of the Jewish people, a nation of rootless wanderers in search of a promised land, real or metaphoric. Man, Appefeld has said, is “a spiritual creation who searches for meaning, searches for a goal in life.” What drives this search is largely a sense of loneliness, one that has become ubiquitous with the Jewish experience of the last century. Morton Feldman , a major American-Jewish composer of the twentieth century, believed that loneliness was at the heart of any great work of art. As an example of real loneliness, he told the following story: Two rabbis, who were very close friends, survived the Holocaust. One went alone to London, the other, to somewhere in South America. The rabbi in London wrote to his friend, ‘Too bad you’re so far away.’  ‘From where?’ was the reply. Perhaps this is what makes Laish so compelling. In its subtle way, this novel reverberates with human emotion, conveying the very depths of Jewish loneliness.