January 15, 2004
Legacy of Questions Without Answers
"The German Money" by Lev Raphael. (Leapfrog Press, $14.95)
William Faulkner once wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." He was referring to the subjects that obsessed him for most of his writing life: the American South, its legacy of slavery, strict racial ideology and the secrets they could hide.
We have our own obsessions. In the half-century since the Holocaust ended, its meaning has become central to the Jewish community's ideas about itself and the world. It is a past that haunts us, not only because of all those lost to the Jewish people, but because we continue to grapple with its lasting effects in our lives. The Shoah is long finished, but not really dead for us. And until we find ways to deal with all its aspects, it certainly won't be past.
No one knows this as well as the children of survivors, those whose youths were shadowed by the Holocaust. Although they may have been given safe American upbringings, they came of age with an acute awareness of the treachery human beings are capable of, the immediacy of death, the way suffering can last a lifetime, even for those who manage to forge new existences: marry, have children, grow old and retire to Florida.
Lev Raphael, a child of survivors, clearly knows this well. His new novel, "The German Money," tries to take on some of the questions that those who inherit the Holocaust must face. Raphael is also a mystery writer, so he is not only interested in recovering the past, but also in solving its mysteries. Because, as Faulkner implied, the past is always a mystery to us. We can never really know its truths. That's why it cannot die. There is too much for us to figure out.
The novel tells the story of Paul Menkus, who has returned to New York from Michigan, where he has made a distinctly non-New York life for himself, after his mother's sudden death. After 15 years of running from his past, he must suddenly face it head-on, especially when he learns that his mother's will has stipulated that all of the reparation money she'd collected from the German government has been left to him.
"The German Money" is not a mystery, which is one of its weaknesses, since it pretends to be one throughout. It reads more like an extended psychotherapy session than a whodunit. On the other hand, that lack of suspense makes the ending, which is as surprising as anything Patricia Cornwell could dream up, that much more unexpected.
But Raphael is too smart for easy answers. The mysteries he set up are never really answered. And in that lack of certainty, Raphael comes closest to expressing what the past must always be -- a half-known thing that we carry with us forever.
Although the book is peopled with half-drawn characters whose personalities seem more described than lived, it redeems itself with the conclusion. It is an important addition to all that we've thought about the Holocaust, because it asks us to reconsider everything we assume about that time. All those stories we've heard -- from parents, grandparents, books and movies -- they tell only a part of the story. The rest stays under the rug, too hard to face. So we leave it there, gathering dust. To say more at this point would be to ruin the end, spoil the mystery. Suffice it to say, the book leaves the reader thinking, as well as satisfied.
This becomes the central mystery for Paul: why did she leave the money to him rather than his sister or brother who both had better relations with her? What had she meant by that gesture?
The more interesting mystery though is the question of his mother. Who was this woman, a survivor who never spoke of her experiences, who raged through the remainder of her life, damaging all three of her children with alternating bouts of cruelty and indifference, who applied for the "German money" reluctantly and then never touched it, who walked every day but dropped dead of a heart attack one afternoon on her couch?
Thankfully, Raphael doesn't try to tie up every loose end. We never get all the answers, but in posing them, he is allowed a reprieve. He -- and we -- get some answers in the end, but the asking seems more important than the response. Once he can face his mother's past, he can finally move into his own future. The past does not quite die with his mother, but it is laid to rest.