A Life That Stalled on the Road of Time

TIMES BOOK CRITIC

What manner of singing would suit an opera about the Holocaust? Not a resonant bass or full-throated soprano. Perhaps a whisper, a half-choked grating--assuming that a composer had genius enough and a heart sufficiently shattered to devise music for such an ungrateful instrument.

Aharon Appelfeld, a novelist and a concentration camp survivor, has something of that kind of genius and heart. "The Iron Tracks" discards many of a novel's vital signs: the vivid voices, the play of characters, the pleasure--even a biting pleasure--it can take in itself. The voice in "Tracks" fails frequently; it lets its story vanish from time to time as if death were a cloud cover that only allowed it to show through in intermittent breaks.

"The Iron Tracks" is told by an old man, the former inmate of a concentration camp who saw both his parents shot dead there. Much of his own quota of life was destroyed as well. What remains is woefully pillaged: a spirit, deprived of large refreshment and hope, which drags itself along on a starved but indomitable mission.

The quiet, seemingly matter-of-fact voice of the narrator, Erwin Siegelbaum, carries flickers of madness; not its own, but that which has leaked in from the world he lived in. His life has its own madness; again, not its own, but as a logical conclusion to the insane premise that history dealt him.

Trains were the terrible fact of his past: the trains that transported Jews to the camps. No house, no abiding can be certain; therefore his own life is spent as a perpetual passenger, minus a week here and there at inns convenient to the tracks. Indeed, Siegelbaum is a connoisseur of train riding and train stations. He relishes the pleasures of the dining car and of the station buffets. He speaks knowledgeably of the occasional brief romance aboard. These should never last more than two stops, he advises.

Small pleasures--a cup of coffee, cherry jam, the capacious bathtub in a favorite inn--are vivid as a clump of flowers on a ruined battlefield. There are no larger pleasures or hopes; simply a double mission, one part revenge, one redemption.

It is only gradually in this lean and darkly gleaming book that Siegelbaum's history and purpose take shape. His train riding is not aimless; it follows a yearly circuit around the villages and small towns of postwar Austria. Each circuit begins at the beginning of spring in the same desolate place: a decrepit collection of sheds and sidings in a village called Wirblbahn.

It is a name that sounds like a curse: a curse, in fact, that attends what Siegelbaum calls his birthplace. Wirblbahn is where, at war's end, the Gestapo guards abandoned the train that was carrying him and his fellow Jews to the death camps. The wheels stopped, and there was silence; eventually, someone unlocked the doors from the outside. Stunned, the prisoners stumbled out.

"No one knew what to do with the life that had been saved," the narrator tells us. One man climbed back in, saying: "Not bad, but too late." The fearful irony bursts--as the Holocaust has burst--the confines of tragedy.

It is partway too late for Siegelbaum, and against this fact his double quest stands out. One is to kill the commandant of the camp where his parents perished. As he rides along, from stop to stop, he gets word of the man's whereabouts; at the end, there is a confrontation that--and we know it well in advance--can in no way be a climax.

Evil is one part of the banality enunciated by political theorist aHannah Arendt. Another part is a gray, eroding blight that has deprived Siegelbaum of everything but grotesquely small pleasures, and his two missions.

Two missions, because his endless circuit pursues redemption as well as revenge. He travels from village to village, from fair to fair, buying up forgotten bits of Judaica: menorahs, kiddush cups and old prayer books, some dating back to the Middle Ages. He has, in fact, brought back a part of the culture and tradition that the Nazis sought to obliterate. He is a hero and savior, one of his fellow Jews tells him. It is too late for the words to mean anything to him; they mean something to us.

"Tracks" is an austere book, a hard book; one that, instead of feeding us, empties us and resonates nevertheless in the hollow.

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