Nattel, Lilian: The River Midnight

Nattel, Lilian
The River Midnight
Knopf Canada, 1999
Hardcover
First published in: The Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Summer 1999

AND

Foer, Jonathan Safran
Everything is Illuminated
Houghton Mifflin, 2002

First published in Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Summer 2003

Review by: Kerry Riley

For a few years in the 80′s, when I was working in Toronto, I made an annual summer pilgrimage to the Carlyle Bluegrass Music Festival to spend a few hours baking in the sun and soaking up some close harmony. Every time I went, it was a perfect summer day — hot, with a periwinkle blue, cloudless sky, and a slight breeze, the evening misty and warm, with fire flies. Each outing seemed a perfect clone of the previous one — the same slim, tanned women, barefoot, with straw hats and anklets, swaying to a prairie waltz, the same gaggle of elfin children racing through the sunshine, the same happy, haunted music filling the air. Each visit left me with the unshakable impression that I was stepping in and out of a timeless place — that no matter what I was doing, the festival continued endlessly, somewhere just to the left of us all, and that each year, on this same July weekend, time lines crossed, however briefly, and a doorway opened to invite the “real” world in.

That particular festival no longer exists, and you can’t get there from here anymore. I like to think, though, that it continues somewhere, and that if I flew “straight on ’til morning,” I might still find it.

All of this is a rather self-indulgent way of introducing Blaszka, an 1890′s Jewish village shtetl which plays a very central role in Lilian Nattel’s debut novel, The River Midnight. Teetering on the brink of a new century, on the banks of the River Midnight of the title, peopled with solid, and (with the exception of a few witches, angels and demons) ordinary people, Blaszka is vibrant, colourful and alive with mystery and everyday concerns. Reminiscent (but not in a derivative way) of much of Robertson Davies’ best writing, magical presences weave their way through the everyday life of the village, capable of giving destiny a tweak, if necessary. A trip there, complements of Ms. Nattel, left me with precisely the same Carlylian impression of stepping in and out of time.

The strength of this impression is no doubt the result of the author’s deft touch with magic realism and her own preoccupation with the qualities of time. The hypnotizing rhythms of her writing, evidence, to me, of a powerful internal ear, warp time for the reader — the pages fly by. If you are yanked bank into the present by some external force, a moment or a century might have passed in the meantime.

The town is first depicted on the eve of a winter Sabbath, as everyone rushes to complete preparations for the holy day before the sun sets. Every detail emphasizes the simplicity and security of ancient tradition. However, as the mysterious Traveler, about to enter the town on a mission of his own observes, “They don’t know what’s coming to them.” Change is what’s coming, in the form of the “the next century riding the train, trailing a line of smoke, the whistle blowing.”

Primed as we are for this collision of past and future, Ms. Nattel further elaborates. “Time,” she says, “is a trickster in Poland.” “In Warsaw they have electric lights. On the farms, peasants make their own candles. And in Blaszka? There, time juggles fire, throwing off sparks that reach far into the past and spin toward the future.”

Magic realism is tricky stuff — the tiniest bit too much pressure and it collapses into farce or fantasy — leaving a cheated, disbelieving reader in its wake. Mindful of these dangers, Ms. Nattel dispenses her magic with restraint, passing her wand lightly over the story, leaving little trails of stardust here and there.

The majority of the narrative is preoccupied with the very concrete, material and human concerns of the shtetl members. Each of nine chapters recounts, from a different member’s viewpoint, a series of portentous events which affect the community. Most prominent are the vilde hayas (or wild creatures) — four women who were inseparable friends as children, but who have grown apart as they matured. One, Zisa-Sara, perhaps the most adventurous, emigrated to American, and, with her husband, died there. It is the return of her orphaned children to the shtetl that precipitates the major crisis in the story and effects a reconciliation among the women.

As one becomes privy to the individual secrets of the nine characters, the tradition-bound, rigid surface of the highly communal and regulated shtetl life is slowly peeled away to reveal a complex, deeply textured community, with plenty of room for jealousies and resentments, imagination, dreams, generosity, courage, cowardice and nonconformities both large and small.

Ms. Nattel has expressed some consternation over the fact that her writing has been compared favourably with that of Isaac B. Singer and E. L. Doctorow, among others. While one can sympathize with her position (a first-time novelist elevated immediately to the position of literary icon — what will she do next?) it’s hard to disagree with the assessment. I can’t wait to see what she does next!

NOTE from the Future: It occurs to me that American writer Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Everything is Illuminated would make an excellent companion story. See review below.

Foer, Jonathan Safran
Everything is Illuminated
Houghton Mifflin, 2002
First published in Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Summer 2003

Review by:  Kerry Riley

I read quite a few books – easily a couple of dozen a year. Some of them are pretty funny. It’s been a long time, though, since a book has reduced me to a helpless puddle of mirth before the end of the first page. Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book Everything is Illuminated did just that, and, moreover, repeated the performance innumerable times throughout the course of the story. Paradoxically, it’s a book about the holocaust.

The source of all the hilarity is Alexander Perchov, a twenty-ish Ukrainian in love with all things American. His father, also named Alexander, works for a travel agency, Heritage Touring, which, despite a casual and pervasive cultural anti-Semitism, specializes in accommodating Jews who wish to explore their pre-WWII heritage in Poland and the Ukraine. When one Jonathan Safran Foer, a young New York writer (bearing striking similarities to the author, not the least of which, his name) contacts the agency with a somewhat unusual request, Alexander the younger, who has had a preliminary brush with English in his university studies, is hastily conscripted as an interpreter. Jonathan, it seems, is looking for help finding the location of his ancestral home, Trachimbrod, an obscure shtetl which was obliterated during the war, and, further, to find “Augustine,” a beautiful young woman who, according to family mythology, saved his grandfather in the holocaust. Alexander’s grandfather, also named Alexander, although officially retired, is pressed into service as the expedition’s driver.

The book opens with the guilelessly beguiling Alexander the younger, henceforth known as Alex, putting his best foot forward as he attempts, in an heroic wrestling match with the English language, to introduce himself and his family. Thus we learn that the “unequivocally tall” Alex is “a very premium person to be with.” We meet his much-loved “miniature brother” Igor, the clumsy, who is always “promenading into things,” and lately sports a black eye, the result of a recent “mismanagement with a brick wall.” His understanding of the average American male heavily influenced by Hollywood, Alex is, he admits at his first meeting with Jonathan, “underwhelmed to the maximum.”

Call it thesaurus humour if you will, but Alex’s ingenuous efforts with English represent one of the comedic triumphs of the book. Foer, the author, deftly exploits the inherent comedy of misplaced meaning– the way in which two words, perfectly staid and dependable on their own, can, if they get too close to one another, reveal hilarious and unsuspected semantic instabilities, and latent humour, and, like parents seen out of context for the first time, reveal an entirely different side of their personalities.

Remarkably, things get funnier. Suffering a depression brought on by the death of his wife, Alex’s grandfather, it seems, is experiencing a bout of psychosomatic blindness – that is, even though he clearly can see, he believes he can’t, and thus insists that Sammy Davis Junior, Junior, his “mentally deranged” female dog, accompany him everywhere as his guide. The fact that Sammy Davis Junior Junior restricts herself to two activities when confined in a car – chewing her tail to a bloody pulp, and flinging herself against the window while barking hysterically – further complicates Alex’s attempt to explain to Jonathan (who as fate would have it is deathly afraid of dogs) that the dog must stay in the tour car to fulfill her role as the driver’s “seeing eye bitch.” One feels deeply for Alex, at this moment, as the absurdities of his life threaten to overwhelm him.

Foer the author, then, sends his motley crew, along with the reader, armed to the teeth with laughter, off into the Ukrainian hinterland, the site of so many holocaust atrocities, on a quest of rediscovery, and while humour is never abandoned on the journey into this eastern European heart of darkness, it does begin to concede precedence to the deeper and darker currents of the story.

As the reader’s acquaintance with Alex grows, one begins to detect, beneath his determinedly positive spin, the dreary realities of his limited existence in post war Europe – a family legacy of alcoholism and violence, his loneliness, and the dream-defeating economic realities that define his horizons. It is impossible not to be charmed and entertained by Alex, but as the reader’s familiarity with his real situation grows, one further comes to appreciate the heroism inherent in his sweetness and indefatigable optimism. The grandfather, too, it becomes clear, is hiding from a tragic past that bears a more than casual acquaintance with the history of the region in which Trachimbrod was once located.

In a secondary narrative line, Foer delivers a highly mythologized and whimsical version of the history of the Trachimbrod shtetl itself, up until the moment of its obliteration. As the shtetl inhabitants move inexorably towards their futureless future, and our ragged band of adventurers stubbornly delve into the past, their paths must, inevitably, intersect – which they do — in the dreary field where Trachimbrod ceased to be, in the presence of an ancient woman who might or might not be Augustine, but who, nevertheless, witnessed the tragedy that unfolded half a century ago. There in the gathering gloom of a Ukrainian evening, in the presence of an authoritative witness, two very different victims of the holocaust (those against whom it was perpetrated, and those who, while not directly responsible, nevertheless, were forced into impossible choices in order to survive) confront each other. Voices disembodied by the black of a moonless country night, and thus rendered universal, ask the essential question: Can it be forgiven?

Not directly, perhaps, but time and personal sacrifice, the story seems to suggest, may make a new life possible.

Another question which has been hanging in the air since the opening paragraph of this review, must, of course, be addressed. Is there room for humour in a book about the holocaust? Is it permissible? My own response would be to say that the sections of the book that deal directly with the holocaust, while a relatively small portion of the story as a whole, were profoundly moving. With humour as a shield, it seems, one can approach the molten emotional core of this subject far more closely than might otherwise be possible. “I used to think,” Jonathan explains to Alex, “that humor was the only way to appreciate how wonderful and terrible the world is, to celebrate how big life is…But now I think it’s the opposite. Humor is a way of shrinking from that wonderful and terrible world.” Whether the humour in the story is used to appreciate or to shield, will depend on the individual reader, but to my mind, either use is legitimate, and one or the other, essential.

Although a relatively slim volume, this is a very big book, full of the energy of life, dense with imagery, metaphysics and mysticism, tragedy, sorrow and much laughter. At its centre, it examines dichotomies – of spirit and body, of dreams and reality, of idealism and pragmatism, good and evil, of heaven and hell. The images are fresh, often very funny, the ideas surprising, the writing exuberant, imaginative, daring and jubilant. To say it will make you laugh and make you cry does not do justice to its emotional range — it will, in fact, break your heart, joyously.

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