Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

On Finishing The Lost

This is the first time I've discussed a book whose author invited me to a public showdown over the state of the novel. I would be remiss if I pretended this didn't affect my approach to the book, which innocently got caught up in this strange, unwanted crossfire. But that's for another post.

If you pay any attention to the lit world, computerized or not, you don't need me to tell you this is a good book. Mendelsohn, a rabid geneaologist, has been keeping records about his family since childhood. I've never known another American Jewish family able to trace European lineage back as far as Mendelsohn can. He has the rare good fortune of knowing real names--something many Jews, with our whitewashed-off-the-boat surnames, cannot boast.

As a child, Mendelsohn so resembled his grandfather's brother, Shmiel Jager, that relatives cried upon seeing him. This resemblance, along with an earful of grandfather Abraham's stories, feeds Mendelsohn's compulsion to know what precisely happened to his Great-Uncle, Aunt, and their four daughters, killed by the Nazis in Bolechow, Poland. This quest takes on near-epic proportions, traveling across the world and time to uncover exactly when and where the Jagers--six of the six million--perished.

Intensively researched (Mendelsohn will abide the internet for this purpose), full of emotional interviews with survivors and graphic detail, The Lost is not for the faint of heart or gut. His description of what happened during the first Aktion--wherein the Nazis herded Bolechow's Jews into local meeting house-cum-movie theatre and tortured them before marching them to the forest and opening fire--will give you nightmares. A book like Mendelsohn's, honing in as it does on the deaths of six people, scales mass murder down, into the uncomfortably personal. The reader following Mendelsohn on his quest becomes invested. What was little Bronia, about twelve when she died, like? Here is her photo, smiling out between her sober-faced parents, Ester who was so nice, Shmiel, who was a little toip (Yiddish for deaf). What of Frydka, who fell in love--God forbid--with a young Polish boy who tried to save her? Did Lorka really hide out in the woods? Mendelsohn wants, passionately, to know what his relatives were like. We do, too.

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I say I had difficulty being objective, but once I began the book it was blessedly easy to put aside the blogging, which allowed in a newer pain: his family was--is--so like mine. He is served the same foods I ate as a child: gefilte fish, kreplach(a meat-filled dumpling), kasha varnishkes (buckwheat groats with bow-tie pasta), matzoh brei. Everybody spoke Yiddish, a language I have not heard in twenty-five years. His deeply religious grandparents, like mine, kept strictly kosher, down to the blue and red striped dishtowels. His description of his grandmother's Pesaydikh (pronounced, in my house, "PAY-sa-DIK-hah") dishes--the set kept separate for Passover, a holiday beginning tomorrow night--could be my Grandma's, right down to the flowered borders with their golden rims. Everywhere he goes--Stockholm, Denmark, Poland, Israel--somebody is bringing out the cake and coffee.

I was also a child who resembled a dead relative, and had the identical experience of walking into a room and causing tears. One person could never bring himself to speak to me. He would appear, at infrequent intervals, and seeing my eight or nine or ten-year-old face, literally avert his head.

Over time I have come increasingly to resemble my mother, but this relative, who never did speak to me, did not live to see my adult face.
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Mendelsohn's writing is unabashedly academic, his sentences long, complex, layered. There are numerous digressions into Torah readings that, while bearing on the story at hand, aren't truly necessary--the story itself, of these six people, fixed in a lost society recounted by elderly people fled to the corners of the globe--stands sadly on its own.

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