Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Aharon Appelfeld, The Story of a Life

I just read Aahron Appelfeld's biographical book The Story of a Life, published in Hebrew in 1999. It's an interesting book, in some ways a very moving book - but it's not, in any obvious way, the story of a life. Or at least, not in the way a historian such as myself would recognize it.

For me, the story of a ilfe starts with dates (birth, for example), place, key events in a chronological order, and some biographical principle of organization. I once read a biography of Sigmund Freud, and the biographer had two or three pages about events when Sigi was 3 years old hand had problems with wetting his pants. Most biographers wouldn't include that sort of data, but you can see what organizing principle had that biographer include that data in that particular biography. (Or not. It actually added nothing to the story, But it could have, I suppose).

I digress.

Appelfeld has a different organizing principle than you'd normally expect in a biography. The central event of his story is the Shoah, which began for him when he was seven years old and ended six years later. He was a child throughout, and a pretty young one when it began. He didn't have biographical concepts as it was happening: he didn't know dates, he probably had only a childish concept of time, and no intellectual tools whatsoever to make sense of the events. (Adults don't have the intellectual tool to make sense of the Shoah, either, not even today, if they're honest with themselves). His mother was murdered at the beginning of the war, in an event he didn't see but did hear. He was with his father for a while (we aren't told how long the while was, and at the time he must not have known it himself) then he was alone. He was in forests and villages, but there's no reason to believe he could have named them at the time - or later. After the war he made it to Italy and from there to Israel, but having a clear conceptual or historical grasp of the events he was living through may not have been the most urgent need even then.

What he did have were memories which settled in his very bones. At one point a Ukrainian peasant woman started beating him and he needed to escape: the memory of this, he tells us, has remained in his ankles till this very day, more than 50 years later. Other physical sensations cause other memories to rise. Sometimes it's not even physical sensations, it's social ones, such as the dread before the Six Days War in 1967 calling forth physical dread from 25 years earlier.

So it's not a chronological story, it's the piecing together of many sensations and snippets of memory which are attached to them, eventually giving us what he promised in the title: the story of a life. But the story of a life felt, more than of a life remembered. Or perhaps, the story remembered through the sensations of feeling it.

An unusual book, but compelling. Different, perhaps, but in its way, very convincingly true.

1 comment:

Barbara Mazor said...

Your description reminded me of the Jerzy Kosinski novel "The Painted Bird" about an orphan child in Europe during WWII who is on the run.

Chilling and horrible things.

Thank you for sharing this book.