Aharon Appelfeld, writer, survivor

Aharon AppelfeldI don’t read much fiction any more. Perhaps because much of the fiction I’ve read recently seems so…fake.

I can’t say that at all about the fiction of Aharon Appelfeld. Maybe because each of his stories is really his own, with the characters changed in some way to make it easier for him to tell the tale. For example, Tzili is about a girl slightly older than he was at the time of the Holocaust and a different gender.

I was introduced to Aharon Appelfeld by my high school Hebrew teacher. I believe we read Cold Spring, one of his early stories. Our teacher explained how Appelfeld writes about characters before or after the Holocaust. If you are looking for the horrible details of the concentration camps, it’s not in his writings.

I am currently reading All Whom I Have Loved, a novel about nine-year-old Paul, a boy with divorced parents in the late 1930’s. I am going to give you a taste of his writing with three quotes:

Father sits and plays chess with an elderly acquaintance. The man touches the chess piece and his hand trembles. When the game is most intense, I hear Father humming to himself. A game of chess can last an hour, sometimes two. Father plays and drinks coffee. I get a hot chocolate and a poppy seed cake. Father’s fingers are long, his fingertips stained with tobacco. He moves the piece, dragging it slowly as if to say, that’s it, no need to hurry, the enemy may be threatening, but he’s not all that strong. It’s easier for Father to talk to himself than to others. When he speaks to himself, entire sentences flow from his mouth. When he wins, he doesn’t boast. With his back hunched over, he tries to appease his opponent.

About Halina, the Ruthenian girl who takes care of Paul while his mother goes to teach:

Halina was lively and amusing but a chatterbox. After seven hours with her, my head was full of noise and I fled to the bedroom and curled up under the blanket so as to get away from it.

About how Jewish Paul learns about Rosh Hashana from his non-Jewish nanny:

Suddenly the sun came out, and in the yard next to us the bearded Jews were wearing white.
“What’s going on?” I asked Halina.
“It’s the Jewish New Year today, didn’t you know?”
Halina had worked for religious Jews, and she knew lots about them; she was always telling me interesting details.
“On Rosh Hashanah they dip an apple in honey so it’ll be a sweet new year.”
“And why do they wear white clothes?”
“To look like angels.”
“You’re teasing me.”

Finally, a quote from the New York Times Book Review about his book Katerina:

Applelfeld reimagines the place of his own origins through a perspective that in its generosity of feeling recalls Tolstoy and Chekhov.

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