The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Monday, December 11, 2006


Back in September I finally got round to reading Philip Roth's Shop Talk, a collection of interviews and conversations with a bunch of writers, many of them Jewish. One was Aharon Appelfeld, someone I'd never heard of. He was seven when the war started, was sent to a ghetto, then a concentration camp, from which he escaped. He then spent two or three years living in the wilds. In the passage I quoted from the conversation with Roth, he said he found it extremely difficult to write about his life 'factually'; then just a few days ago I came across The Story of a Life. Looks like he decided to give it a go. I'm reading it at the moment. Everything is reduced to the bare bones, and for this reason:
More than fifty years have passed since the end of the war. I have forgotten much, even things that were very close to me - places in particular, dates, and the names of people - and yet I can still sense those days in every part of my body. Whenever it rains, it's cold, or a fierce wind is blowing, I am taken back to the ghetto, to the camp, or to the forests where I spent many days. Memory, it seems, has deep roots in the body. Sometimes just the smell of rotting straw, or the sharp call of a bird, is enough to take me back, piercing me deep inside.

I say inside, although I still haven't found the words to give voice to those intense scars on my memory. Over the years I tried, on more than one occasion, to go back and touch the planks on which we slept in the camp, and to taste the watery soup that was doled out there. But all this effort yielded no more than jumbled phrases, incorrect words, disjointed rhythm, weak or exaggerated characters. Profound experience, I've already learned, is easily distorted.
You would think that with his war-child experience having become limited to, judging from this book, snapshots and fragments of narrative, reading it would be unsatisfying, like trying to reconstruct an entire play from a few scraps of parchment. Not so. Because so much has been lost to recall, what is remembered is told with clarity and with all the overtones and harmonics present. One of the effects of this concentration, this extremely tight focus, is to give everything in the book tremendous authority. You pay attention.

If that sounds facile, given the subject matter, I should point out that while Appelfeld does relate some terrible stories, others give reason for hope, and others are simply observations on the different ways people behave in extreme circumstances. Reaching a judgement, trying to give a critical assessment or a summary, is what seems to me to be facile. It's like trying to contain the uncontainable. Appelfeld relates: the reader pays attention. That's it.


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