This sad, grim story provides a powerful representation of human life, the universal struggle to survive in an unforgiving world.
Contributors: Aloma Halter (Translator)
Author: Aharon Appelfeld
US publication date: 2009-03
Whatever the name Laish may signify in Hebrew, Yiddish, Romanian or Ukrainian, American readers will be forgiven if they associate it with the English word "lash".
The characters of Aharon Appelfeld's beautiful and profoundly disturbing new novel, only dimly aware of their own motives, seem to go through life under the lash of relentless unseen forces.
Laish, a 15-year-old orphan, cannot remember when he was not a member of a group of Jewish pilgrims, making their way laboriously through Eastern Europe in the closing years of the 19th century, on their way to Jerusalem.
Started by a revered holy man, long since dead, the caravan depends on devout old men, the spiritual leaders of the group. Also included are traders, thieves and con men, sometimes interchangeable, who prey on their companions as well as the Jewish and Christian settlements through which they pass.
Practical leadership often falls to the wagon drivers, strong, profane and drunken, most of them former convicts released after decades of imprisonment for murder. Though they behave on impulse, they still at times bow to the pious authority of the old men.
Appelfeld observes the pilgrims' progress at close range, never drawing back to provide context or overview, hewing scrupulously to Laish's point of view. Though the narrative is lovely and precise, the events it describes consist of a succession of miseries -- murder, strife, double-dealing, hunger, harsh weather, pestilence.
Appelfeld delivers a strong narrative, richly detailed, and he seeds the story with subtle bits of symbolism. After cowing a cemetery keeper, who demanded an exorbitant fee to allow a burial, the convoy departs: "The warden asked nothing else and retired to the forecourt of the graveyard. But before he turned to go into his hut, he waved and drew two iron bars across the gates. The wooden doors momentarily buckled under the weight of the metal, then straightened themselves."
It is impossible to read this passage and not think of the pilgrims, buckling under the weight of hardship and pain, yet always standing up, always continuing on. It is also impossible to read this book without reference to the Holocaust.
That's because Appelfeld, one of Israel's most important novelists, survived the Final Solution as a child. Even though the events of this novel take place decades before the Nazis sought to exterminate the Jews, the agonies and sorrows of its characters cannot help but evoke the image of too-familiar horrors.
Appelfeld's skill lends the symbolism a shrewd versatility. The journey could be seen as the history of the Jews, making their way through alien territory toward the Promised Land. It could be a metaphor for modern Israel, pulled in different directions by religious and secular impulses.
And not least, this sad, grim story provides a powerful representation of human life, the universal struggle to survive in an unforgiving world.
Paradise may be the goal -- Jerusalem is a clear symbol of Heaven -- while faith may sustain. But only death and pain are certainties.