God’s Horse and The Athe­ist’s School

Wil­helm Dichter; Made­line G. Levine, trans.
  • Review
By – November 15, 2012

Nei­ther Holo­caust nar­ra­tive in the style of Elie Wiesel’s Night nor Jew­ish Bil­dungsro­man (Chaim Potok’s The Cho­sen comes quick­ly to mind), Wil­helm Dichter’s two-part nov­el­is­tic mem­oir God’s Horse and The Athe­ist’s School bridges the two tropes with a high­ly detailed and occa­sion­al­ly ten­der account of the author’s har­row­ing escape from Nazi per­se­cu­tion and sub­se­quent upbring­ing under Sovi­et rule in post­war Warsaw. 

An invet­er­ate doo­dler as a boy, the adult Dichter traces for us a series of curlicues through his young life in the tra­di­tion of James Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus and Potok’s Reuven Mal­ter, from com­fort­able begin­nings as an only child in a Jew­ish enclave in rur­al Poland, through a lone­ly, peri­patet­ic child­hood, and into a search­ing young adult­hood in which the mer­its of Com­mu­nism and Judaism often clash. 

Despite, and in a way, per­haps because of, the trau­ma of war, Dichter recalls all the minu­ti­ae of his youth — meals, con­ver­sa­tions, and fur­ni­ture, to name a few — with a remark­able facil­i­ty, recount­ing pre­cise por­tions served, Sovi­et lead­ers alter­nate­ly praised and exco­ri­at­ed, and beds slept both on and under, with a pho­tog­ra­pher’s pre­ci­sion. Not that all of these pho­tographs endure equal­ly; in Dichter’s expe­ri­ence, and because of his fer­tile imag­i­na­tion, mem­o­ries and dreams can’t help but bleed into and com­min­gle with every­day life. A trip to the butch­er shop becomes a ter­ri­fy­ing retreat from Ger­man sol­diers on horse­back, tens­es change unpre­dictably between past and present, and per­sons liv­ing and dead engage one anoth­er in dia­logue. Even the prose itself has a pho­to­graph­ic qual­i­ty, where scenes, ren­dered and trans­lat­ed faith­ful­ly by Made­line G. Levine in spare, del­i­cate prose, are sep­a­rat­ed with dou­ble-spac­ing. It’s as if each mem­o­ry, like the young, friend-less, sib­ling-less nar­ra­tor who fre­quent­ly finds him­self a pas­sen­ger on some­one else’s train, would pre­fer to stand alone, if only there weren’t so many oth­er mem­o­ries infring­ing on its space.

Josh Ellis is def­i­nite­ly lit­er­ate, as evi­denced by his reviews. When not read­ing, he can be found putting his Eng­lish degree to good use, tend­ing bar at his local water­ing hole. He lives in Brook­lyn, NY.

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