A Frail, Connecting Thread : THE SHAWL <i> by Cynthia Ozick</i> , <i> (Alfred A. Knopf: $12.95; 56 pp.) </i>
Devastating and exquisite, Cynthia Ozick’s ninth book, “The Shawl,” carries the emotional impact of a much longer work. In only 56 pages that contain a short story, “The Shawl,” and a novella, “Rosa,” Ozick creates a world that reaches beyond words, beyond pages, a world that evokes nightmares contained between the lines and leaves us mute.
The short story is set in a concentration camp where Rosa hides her daughter in a shawl she has tied to herself. Nursing her daughter, she is a “walking cradle . . . a floating angel,” and the 15-month-old Magda is “a squirrel in a nest, safe.” But the safety is deceptive as the child sucks on her mother’s dry breast and then on the shawl, “flooding the threads with wetness. The shawl’s good flavor, milk of linen.”
Rosa knows her daughter cannot live for long, and that awareness cuts through every moment. This child who looks “Aryan” and quite likely is the consequence of Rosa’s rape by a German soldier, needs to be protected from her cousin, Stella, a starving 14-year-old who surely would devour her.
In a scene unequaled in contemporary literature, the child who has been “buried away deep inside the magic shawl, mistaken there for the shivering mount of Rosa’s breasts,” is thrown at an electric fence by a concentration-camp guard. But even here, Ozick’s language transcends the gruesome facts of Magda’s death as the child swims “through the air . . . like a butterfly touching a silver vine.” Yet, her language does not diminish the horror but rather intensifies it. To protect herself with silence, Rosa is left drinking the shawl.
This shawl is the connecting force between the story and the novella, “Rosa.” Although the novella does not vibrate with the taut power of the story, it rounds out the pattern of Rosa’s life 30 years later as she tries to resist the impact of her daughter’s death. Here, too, the language fits the situation--it is immediate and reveals in the first line that Rosa is “a madwoman and scavenger.”
Rosa resists the label “survivor” that society has applied to her and others who got out from concentration camps. “It used to be refugee, but now there was no such creature, no more refugees, only survivors, a name like a number . . . blue digits on the arm.”
She protects herself with many small obsessions. Her life is fragmented--fantasy, memory and reality blending in an ever-shifting pattern. Destructive and self-destructive, Rosa isolates herself within a tight circle of habits. After demolishing her antique shop back East, she moves into a dingy hotel for the elderly in Florida. “The whole peninsula of Florida was weighted down with regret. Everyone had left behind a real life.”
Rosa’s daughter has not stayed for her at the age she died, but has grown, taking on a history of her own, a ghost nourished by Rosa’s intricate fantasies. “Magda, a beautiful young woman of thirty, thirty-one: a doctor married to a doctor; large house in Mamaroneck, New York; two medical offices, one on the first floor, one in the finished basement.”
Rosa’s most significant communications lie in the countless letters she writes to Magda, who can change from a doctor to a teen-ager to a professor of Greek philosophy at Columbia. Her niece, Stella, who sends her monthly checks, keeps reminding her that Magda is dead. To avoid conflict, Rosa pretends she believes her. This deception forms an even stronger bond between her and the adult daughter of her fantasies.
She sees herself as a woman who does not have a life. Her worry about misplaced underpants turns into an obsession that blots out the horror of Magda’s death, a horror always ready to envelop her again if she isn’t careful. She begins to suspect Simon Persky, a retired man who tries to court her, of stealing the pants. The imagined theft leaves her feeling humiliated, anxious as she searches for the pants in the streets.
She feels superior to Simon as she recalls the Warsaw of her childhood, her privileges and education that set her apart even in the ghetto. “Imagine confining us with teeming Mockowiczes and Rabinowiczes and Perskys and Finkelsteins, with all their bad-smelling grandfathers and their hordes of feeble children . . . we were furious . . . .”
When her niece honors her request and sends her Magda’s shawl, Rosa feels disappointed because it does not “instantly restore Magda, as usually happened . . . The shawl had a faint saliva smell, but it was more nearly imagined than smelled.” Yet, when her daughter finally materializes, she displaces reality, taking on more specific traits than most of the live characters.
Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl” is brilliant, moving, and chilling as it attempts to convey a terror so immense that it overwhelms the characters and renders them speechless. To build any language out of this inability to articulate seems impossible; yet, Ozick does it in such a way that we, as readers, share the characters’ powerlessness to give words to their innermost experiences and, therefore, are forced to relive them.