There is a strange story, repeated in yeshiva day school classes and Shabbat lunch tables, that when Julius Streicher reached his richly deserved end at Nuremberg in 1946, he yelled “Purimfest!” from the gallows platform.
The story of Esther, and that of the Holocaust: both cases in which God was hidden, and only one of which ended in rejoicing. The renowned Hungarian writer Gábor Schein’s The Book of Mordechai—the first of two novellas in this volume published by Seagull Press as part of its new Hungarian List — sutures together these stories in the operating theater of a small oilcloth-covered table in Hungary. The protagonist, called only P., is being taught to read Hebrew by his grandmother, who uses a Hungarian translation of the Book of Esther as her textbook. The Book of Mordechai alternates between the story of Esther and quick sketches of Hungarian Jewish life in the middle decades of the twentieth century — sketches that eventually form a full portrait of the merciless transition from deportations and labor camps to the grind of poverty under Stalin. The “action” belongs to Mordechai and Esther, Ahasuerus, and Vashti in her defiance. The story’s present is merely an act of reading, and life happens inside and alongside the translated book. “We should speak in a language that does not exist,” a long-ago rabbi ruefully urges in the book’s backward glances. If we cannot find the right words, we risk finding ourselves babbling in the garbled tongues of Ahasuerus’s furthest provinces, teetering over the ledge of the known world.
If The Book of Mordechai is a story about reading that has about it the quiet sideways rhythm of that activity, this volume’s second work, Lazarus, pulses with the anger and anxiety that writing can engender, as it demands always another mark on the page. Lazarus takes the form of a son writing about his father in express disobedience to the latter’s wishes — an act of love tinged with violence. The unspeakable and unwritable horrors of the Holocaust compound to delineate a sullen and airless present in Communist Hungary where “the chances for liberty were null.” Lazarus is the project of “writing a body, a burning book. I will let it burn away anew, let the words perish with it — but not without a trace, for burning always leaves behind a mark.” Lazarus’s narrator sees the resurrection of the biblical Lazarus not as the triumph of life over death, but as merely a particularly effective sign for the sordid failures of the imagination. Writing is like the corruption of the flesh; it parades wounds instead of binding them together to allow healing. The only mercy is that, like bodies, the narrator’s words will eventually become dust.