The title of Aharon Appelfeld’s 2003 novel (Pitom Ahavah in Hebrew) is somewhat misleading or deliberately ironic. No great moment of passion sweeps through its pages nor sweeps up its two principal characters. Rather, this slender novel, ably translated by Jeffrey Green, depicts the slowly unfolding relationship between Ernst, a 70-year-old veteran of the Red Army in World War II, and Irena, his 36-year-old housekeeper-caregiver.
In early 1980s Jerusalem, Ernst, now retired from work as a financial analyst and twice married, is suffering from various ailments of aging and is trying to write. Irena is a woman of limited education who has lived most of her life with her parents, Holocaust survivors, who have recently died. Both characters are withdrawn, taciturn, and struggling for some kind of connection. Ernst is unhappy with his writing, spending hours composing and then tearing up his drafts. Irena lives within her own little world, bounded by her parents’ home, which she keeps as if they were still alive, and Ernst’s house, where she provides meals, and an audience for Ernst’s recitations of his writing. Eventually, the quietly blossoming relationship between the sometimes-imperious Ernst and the shy and inarticulate Irena leads to Ernst’s breakthrough as a writer.
In addition to defining the relationship between Ernst and Irena, the only characters in the present time of the novel aside from one of Ernst’s doctors, the novel’s title also refers to the relationship between Ernst and his long-lost past. Through flashbacks and, later, through the text Ernst finally succeeds in writing and sharing with Irena, we gain access to Ernst’s long-suppressed feelings about his family. Having as a young man abandoned his parents — in his memory non-entities who passed their life in empty silence — and tradition in favor of militant communism, and having spent the war years in the Soviet Army as it swept through Eastern Europe, Ernst finds himself dredging up his childhood when he spent idyllic summer vacations in the rural Carpathians with his dignified peasant grandparents.
This sweet and quiet novel evokes themes that Appelfeld has explored elsewhere in his fiction as well as in his memoir, Story of A Life (Sippur Hayim, 2004): memory; the meaning of the past; the lost world of inter-war Europe; the effect of the Holocaust on the survivors; the relationship between language and silence. “Memory has deep roots in the body,” Appelfeld writes in Story of a Life, and in this novel the details of the past have an almost physical reality. Irena, listening to Ernst’s moving reconstruction of his past, comments, “So the purpose of writing is to rescue things from oblivion?”
“So it appears,” Ernst responds. The evocation of Ernst’s childhood experiences cast a warm glow of nostalgia on the inter-war period of Eastern Europe and one only wishes that the novel had revealed more of Ernst’s experiences, and Irena’s.
- Contemporary Israeli Literature reading list
- You Saved Me, Too: What a Holocaust Survivor Taught Me About Living, Dying, Loving, Fighting and Swearing in Yiddish by Susan Resnick
- Timeless: Love, Morgenthau, and Me by Lucinda Franks