Jewish Journal

Israeli Novel of Ideas Overpowers Story

by Donna Rifkind

Posted on Jan. 1, 2004 at 7:00 pm

"Foiglman" by Aharon Megged. Translated by Marganit Weinberger-Rotman. (Toby Press, $19.95).

Can a work of fiction be important without being successful? If so, it would look pretty much like "Foiglman," by the distinguished Israeli author, Aharon Megged.

"Foiglman" was originally published in Israel in 1988 and is being issued here for the first time in English by Toby Press, a Connecticut-based firm with an active editorial office in Jerusalem that has been busily acquiring backlists of leading Israeli writers.

Megged's book is a novel of ideas in which ideas completely overpower the novel itself. True, they are ideas of the utmost gravity, and they are given unusually thoughtful and provocative treatment here. If the fictional framework of Megged's book were handled as magnificently, in fact, this would have been a staggering work of art.

At the center of the novel is Zvi Arbel, a 60-ish professor of European history and the author of "The Great Betrayal," a study of a 1648 massacre of Polish Jews that many historians view as analogous to the Nazi genocide. Zvi lives comfortably in his hometown of Tel Aviv and teaches at the university, while his wife, Nora, works as a biologist. Their grown son, Yoav, is employed by the army and lives nearby with his wife and young daughter.

Trouble arrives one day in the form of a fawning fan letter. Out of the blue, an obscure Yiddish poet named Shmuel Foiglman sends Zvi a volume of his poems that contains a lavish dedication "to the very important author of 'The Great Betrayal,' who ... penetrated to the crux of the awesome tragedy of the murdered Jewish people, the ashes of whose 6 million are scattered over the earth of Europe."

With little interest in poetry and only a spotty command of Yiddish, Zvi is perplexed by this gift from a total stranger. Yet something about the book -- which contains mostly lamentations by a man who clearly lived through the Holocaust -- elicits sympathy from Zvi.

The two men strike up a correspondence, followed by a series of meetings in both Tel Aviv and Paris. Against the wishes of Zvi's increasingly irritated wife, he offers to arrange for a translation of Foiglman's book into Hebrew and, eventually, for Foiglman to move to Israel for good.

Over time, Zvi learns pieces of Foiglman's past, from his childhood in Zamosc, Poland, to the 1942 deportation of the town's Jews, whereupon Foiglman and his twin brother fled to the barn of a Polish peasant, who agreed to hide them for a high ransom, then turned them over to the Germans two weeks later.

"Thus Shmuel Foiglman," Megged writes, "witnessed first hand 'The Great Betrayal.'"

Later, the brothers were sent to Majdanek and from there to various labor camps, surviving somehow until the end of the war, when they wandered, barely alive, through a shattered Europe.

Though he now expects that here in Israel both he and his poetry will at last find a nurturing home, Foiglman is doomed to disappointment. There is little interest in Yiddish in Israel at all, where Hebrew reigns supreme. Foiglman's hopes that the Yiddish language might rise again out of the European destruction, that something might be preserved from that savage annihilation, are dashed.

After Zvi himself puts up the money to translate Foiglman's book, it is all but ignored by the Israeli literati.

"Sometimes at night," Foiglman confesses to Zvi, "I wake up from a terrible nightmare in which I'm shouting, 'Gevald!' and nobody understands my language."

Meanwhile, as Zvi's friendship with the poet blooms, his marriage withers. At first merely irritated by Foiglman, Nora becomes jealous, then angry and finally, after Zvi refuses to cut off his association, she begins a tumultuous affair with a younger man.

Finally, after months of unbearable agitation, she commits suicide. Four months later, Foiglman becomes ill and dies, leaving Zvi doubly haunted by sorrow and guilt.

If these domestic betrayals seem trifling when compared to the massive betrayals of history and language that are the themes of Megged's book, their failure to move the reader lies at the bottom of the perhaps unavoidable pitfall the author has set for himself. The truth is that the author has succeeded so well in outlining his big ideas -- the impossibility of translating the horror of the Holocaust, the failure of art and faith in the face of mass murder -- that his own novel has become a disappointed testament to the truths of those ideas.

His characters are simply too flimsy to bear the symbolic weight he has heaped on them, and it's difficult to care about Zvi and Nora's marital squabbles in the face of Foiglman's devastating history.

In the end, the reader is left with awe and certainly compassion for the victims of genocide, but with little in the way of aesthetic satisfaction .  

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