By Aharon Appelfeld
Schocken Books, 2009, $23.95
In some sort of translation trompe l’oeil, this work appears longer in English and the book heavier and more substantial. The Hebrew original (published in 1994) appeared shorter and slimmer, not quite a novel and almost a long parable. Perhaps English, the language that mothered the novel, arguably more wordy and nuanced than its Semitic counterpart, helps to give the work a more novelistic air. Reading the same book in two different languages is always a peculiar experience: familiar sentences take on a new tone; things, barely noticeable, are added or taken away; and still, it is the same Laish.

And Laish is a strange and wonderful book, a curious story of an extraordinary journey: a convoy of Jews travelling through Eastern Europe on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The travellers are all strangers to each other — old religious men, traders, thieves and murderers are crammed together in the wagons — and none stranger than the narrator, the orphan Laish, because nothing could ever be familiar to a boy with no family. Laish knows nothing about his parents and does not know much about himself either, not even the meaning of his name, only that ‘the name comes from Hungary’. (But Laish, your name comes from the Bible, from the story of Palti, son of Laish, who tearfully followed his wife Michal to the gates of Jerusalem. She was reunited with David and he was ordered to turn back. So he, like you, tried to reach Jerusalem.) Aharon Appelfeld the boy was orphaned at a young age. Eight years old when World War Two broke, young Aharon escaped from a labour camp and spent several years hiding in the forests of Ukraine, somehow surviving and waiting for his parents to come back to him. Appelfeld reached Palestine in 1946 and today lives in Jerusalem.

When Laish is ordered to record the names of those in the convoy who die along the way, he too, like Appelfeld, finds himself in the role of the storyteller. Speaking from the depths of loneliness, his voice, the voice of the uprooted, comes from nowhere, with no vantage point of space or time.

Telling stories does not come easily to the boy. He is a cautious narrator, not used to being listened to, or to making himself too visible. In the dangerous environment of the convoy, a child alone is wary of getting in people’s way. He tries to disappear in the story and carefully encodes his emotions. ‘In his last days,’ he says of the man for whom he used to run errands, ‘although he goaded me, he did not make me hate him, even though his wickedness overflowed from him’. Then, after the man dies, Laish remarks dryly, ‘I became someone else’s property’.

Laish is unlike other orphan storytellers. The orphan in Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous ‘The Voices’ cycle, for example, directly confronts the readers with the abysmal agony of his being. His tone is disturbing and accusatory. Pip, in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, is a self-helping Victorian. True to the ideology of his time, Pip leads himself from orphaned boyhood to independent manhood by the power of his storytelling. But Jewish Laish narrates as he lives, almost in hiding. He is reluctant to talk about himself too much. He opts for the ‘we’ instead of the ‘I’ and does his best to blend in with the rest of the human mass moving towards Jerusalem. It is easier to chronicle the journey, other people, other people’s heartaches. So he quietly observes the bizarre collection of human beings on the wagons: Mamshe, the girl who lives in a man-size birdcage; Ephraim, who has visions from other worlds; the dumb, the drunk, the demonic. Some live their nightmares in their sleep and some live them in waking. Some are haunted by their past, others by an unknown future.

The convoy is delayed again and again, by greed, violence and disease. But maybe it is not delayed at all. Laish’s ‘employer’ believes that the pilgrimage is nothing but a fraud. ‘I don’t believe that the convoy intends to reach Jerusalem,’ the boy admits. ‘Even though wherever we arrive, the dealers declare our destination at the top of their lungs.’ The dealers deal, the beggars beg and no one is nearer Jerusalem. Yet somewhere else Laish confesses he dreams of the city, ‘a broad, light-filled city — a city where there is no frost or dampness, where a man can lay his head on a stone and fall asleep.’ But then, quickly, apologetically, ‘I must surely be wrong.’

So the days are full of deception, and the nights are full of terror. Bundled in their corners, the weak suffer. The thieves, quick-fingered and ghost-like, rob them of the little they have and the thugs threaten to throw them off the wagons. And in the midst of this, the old men, desperate to reach Jerusalem, slowly die one by one, as the convoy continues to stall. The book’s chapters are short and disorienting, and reflect the movement of the convoy. This is no straightforward movement. It is slightly out-of-time, slightly otherworldly, slightly not what it appears to be.

In this time-out-of-time, there are moments when compassion comes stiffly, in small measures,‘Once he bought me a bar of halva’, Laish remembers of his ‘employer’. Sometimes, there are even shows of affection: ‘From time to time people will say, ‘Laish is a good lad, he helps the old men’, and I am moved’. At these moments, the convoy briefly becomes something like a community. And then there is finally a hint of redemption, and a glimpse of Jerusalem.

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