A book review of The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping by Aharon Appelfeld
This review explores important themes of the book, such as sleep, names, separation, literary explorations within a book, connections to the past, and healing.
Basic plot: The main character along with a group of teenage boys is a Holocaust survivor. He and this group have lost their parents and presumably their entire extended families, murdered in the Holocaust. The book follows the main character as he first joins the group in Naples and later they travel as a group by boat to the land of Israel (it was not yet the State of Israel). He works in the fields, and then when the fighting starts, he is almost immediately wounded. The story weaves from the realities the young man faces to his dreams and subconscious connections to his parents and other people of his childhood. The book also gives a glimpses of how the other boys cope (or not) as well.
Sleep: In Appelfeld’s book, why does the title imply that the main character never stops sleeping? In the beginning of the book, fellow refugees must carry him fast asleep from place to place. A few chapters into the book, he seems quite awake. Perhaps the reference is to character’s emotional world. He seems to prefer to connect to the world of his childhood. By the end of the book, he is spending more time in his dreams and his mind than he is interacting with people that are really alive in his world. By the end of the book, his dead mother seems more real in his dreams than the people of Tel Aviv, where he then lives.
What’s in a name? An important theme in the book is a name. The boys indeed many of the Holocaust survivors are urged to change their European names, the names their (now dead) parents had given them, to Hebrew names. Ephraim, their leader, didn’t have to change his. He was born in the Land with a Hebrew name. One nurse that he meets emphatically did *not* give up her name, and the main character regrets that he did not have her strength. There is one boy in their group who does not give up his name – tragically, he has way too much pain in general; he makes a deadly choice.
Some of the best parts of the book are references to literary text and text of the Bible. As a patient convalescing, the author is introduced to Agnon. He talks about a connection to Kafka through his father; he remembers his father bringing home short stories by a little known author named Kafka. It makes sense that he connects to Agnon in his real and present world, the land where Agnon wrote his stories. And Kafka is part of the tragic Jewish European experience, a foreboding of the crazy, evil world of the Holocaust. He learns Bible through a character named Slobotsky, described as a genius when he lived in Berlin. Slobotsky gives a lesson on prayer: voiced prayer and the voiceless prayer of Hannah. The reaction of one of the boys: Why are we studying the Bible and not biology?
Separation: in the normal course of life, a child is supposed to eventually separate from his parents. But if a child is emotionally very attached to parents and the parents are “yanked” away (murdered brutally), it can be hard for the child, even as an adult, to ever separate.
“Where have you been, father?” I asked, struggling to breathe. “Here,” he said, in a voice I knew in all its timbres.” “But they drove us out and scattered us.” “You’re mistaken, my dear. We were together, we were always together, even when we momentarily parted. The camps existed and then disappeared, but we remained together.” That was Father. Time had not stained his face. p. 61-62
Connection to the past: there is a character who shows up off and on in the book, Dr. Weingarten. Dr. Weingarten is the only person who is familiar with his family, the only connection to his past who is still alive. We learn about the main character’s parents through Dr. Weingarten. There is another older character who seemed to know of his grandfather. It is a struggle to connect to his childhood. He often fears losing his childhood language, while at the same time he struggles to improve his Hebrew by copying biblical texts (and Agnon text as well).
Healing, Doctors and Names: Why is the doctor who operates on him called Dr. Winter? What is the symbolism of the name? The other doctors are discouraging. Only Dr. Winter brings tempered hope. Maybe he only can offer physical healing. The emotional fractures remain. Maybe the emotional part must treated by the main character himself, as he struggles to become the writer his dead father wanted to be.
You can read more about Aharon Appelfeld.