FEBRUARY 27, 2012
While Gentiles experience and process the world through the traditional senses, and use memory only as a second-order means of interpreting events, for Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger. The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. It is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks — when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when his grandfather’s fingers fell asleep from stroking his great-grandfather’s damp forehead, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain — that the Jew is able to know why it hurts.
When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?
— Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated
RIVER, GOAT, RAIN, CHILD, Cabbage, Mother, Mustard, Stranger, Letter, Compass, Letter, Letter, Star: How easy it is, from a string of nouns, to pick out a constellation, a story. Identity itself often seems this kind of narrative, daisy-chained from a million disparate moments, objects, emotions. Who we are, as Ramona Ausubel puts it in her debut novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, can almost be summed up by the physical things we know are real around us, a pinprick connecting us to a history of pins.
Ausubel’s is a novel of almost remembering, a story of remnants and skeletons and the stitching together of now from the flotsam of then. “This book is about what we pass on,” Ausubel writes in her author’s note, “and the right of the next generation to keep telling the story long after the facts have melted away and what is left is truth, glittering in a sky deep and dark enough to hold everything lost, everything saved.” Those four words might have provided Ausubel a title: her novel is stuffed with things simultaneously lost and saved — those saved by virtue of their lost-ness, and those lost in the act of becoming saved.
The book takes place largely in the Romanian Jewish village of Zalischik, located on a peninsula in the Dniester River (perhaps a relative of the peninsular Sitka in Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union). Village life is an idyll, almost a cartoon: cabbages are picked, potatoes dug, children wear “scrubbed cheeks that looked like juicy, pluckable fruit.” Characters, except for the narrator and her family, are indicated only by their occupations — “butcher, baker, saddlemaker” — and serve largely as faceless vehicles for given attributes like bigness or envy.
As war threatens to consume the country, and indeed the world, the village’s nine families, with the help of a pogrom survivor they’ve found in the river, decide to start over by erasing the past and the rest of reality with it. Zalischik already seemed unanchored from history, and now the characters slip the last of the moorings. Time and all obvious markers of era are banished, clocks, typewriters, and radios thrown into the river. Jobs, ages, husbands, and even a child are shuffled up and reassigned.
Like everything else in this novel, the change is about a story. This forgotten village’s Jewish former identity was founded in a mythology “of wandering, of being lost, of starting again,” and so too is their new one: “When there is nothing left to do, and there is nowhere else to go, the world begins again.” In the village’s new truth, today is the first day of the world. Their existence becomes both a radical act of denial and a Herculean labor of faith.
In Holocaust fiction — which Ausubel’s book only sort of is — the demand for truth has been intense, even while exigencies of time make rags of whatever border once existed between fact and fiction, that art Oscar Wilde defined as the “telling of beautiful untrue things.” Wilde wrote of Art that she “takes life as part of her rough material, recreates it, and refashions it in fresh forms, is absolutely indifferent to fact … keeps between herself and reality the impenetrable barrier of beautiful style.” Ruth Franklin, in her A Thousand Darknessess: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, notes that critics of Holocaust fiction have failed to accept this definition of art: indifference to facts, Franklin writes, is the one thing the Holocaust will not abide. Yet it’s this very prohibition that both Ausubel and her villagers exploit: art, in the novel, provides a barrier to an increasingly savage real, the indifference to fact crumbling the reality the village seeks to avoid. Style is literalized, and the impossible facts of history are both processed and avoided by a turn toward fantasy.
In this respect, Ausubel’s novel has much in common with Nathan Englander’s short story “The Tumblers.” In the ghetto of Chelm, the Yiddish village traditionally populated by fools, Englander’s characters rename bad things for good: “they called their aches ‘mother’s milk,’ and darkness became ‘freedom’; filth they referred to as ‘hope’ — and felt for a while, looking at each other’s hands and faces and soot-blackened clothes, fortunate.” Potatoes are gold and gold potatoes; sour cream is water and water sour cream. Englander’s Jews, like the occupants of the train car his villagers stumble into, are magicians, their disappearance a sleight of hand. Now you see them, now you don’t. To escape this fate, the villagers pretend to be acrobats, and for a few magical moments, they are.
So, too, Ausubel’s villagers enjoy, for a time, a safety conjured out of pure will, and like Englander’s tumblers, it’s despair that propels their belief, making them seem as much like deluded fools as like magi. “This world is about hope more than events,” they believe. It’s to Ausubel’s credit that she recognizes how vigilantly such an enclosure of belief must be tended, as the old world continues to exist alongside and its letters, radio waves, and memories to beat their wings against the walls.
Central to the village’s storytelling effort is the novel’s narrator, an 11-year-old girl named Lena. In the new world, Lena is adopted by an aunt and uncle, raised as though she’d begun again as a baby, and summarily married off to the banker’s son, with whom she has two children. Lena recounts, for her infant daughter, “both the parts I saw with my eyes and the parts I did not … Truth is not in facts. The truth is in the telling …” Perhaps, though letting Lena narrate events that she does not directly witness tends to undermine parts of Ausubel’s plot, weakening, for instance, the fear of separation (“Did I wait all day, all the next day?” — a deflated question, as she and the reader both know already) and leading to the occasionally strained arrangement of pronouns.
Among the jobs created in the newborn village are those of “The Committee for What We Have and Where We Have It,” a group responsible for the cataloging and measurement of possessions both tangible (“Forks: 498, Full Grown Trees: 190”) and not (“Overbearing Mothers-in-Law: 11, Regrets in Matters of Love: 1,987”). This kind of listing is a frequent tendency of Ausubel’s: notes left in pockets read “mouse, bed, fingernail, missing, hot, fire, lie” and the names of stars are repeated like prayers (“the horse, which oversees the birth of babies; the pine tree, which keeps watch over men who can’t sleep; the potato, which looks after those who fear being alone. The frog, which must have some purpose, and the chicken, which pecks the frog”). This constant itemization recalls Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated: in his old woman’s house, there were also boxes, marked with labels like “Weddings and Other Celebrations” and “Hygiene/Spools/ Candles.”
Like that house and like Zalischik, Ausubel’s novel is not only an island but an ark, laded with objects for protection and preservation. The answer to the village’s question — “Who are we?” — seems to be: “We are these things.” Still, at one point, the stranger wonders:
If the people had been put out to sea, would their odd cargo have sustained them? On their lost ark of a world, floating alone, unpulled by the moon, unwarmed by the sun, the people waited to be dragged up onto some dry shore, some island where flowering trees might drop petals into their salty hair, and not long after, globes of waxy fruit.
One might ask the same thing of the novel: can its collection of objects keep a story of this heaviness afloat? Ausubel has a pack rat’s greediness with imagery, and the well-built raft of her novel can seem overloaded with similes: “My mother absently took my braids in her hand and held them like rein”; “We remained in the healer’s kitchen, and danger crept around us like a salamander”; “The banker’s wife woke up and swatted at her eleven children, huddled close, like a woman keeping flies off the pie.” When so many things are like so many other things, it is easy for the prose to grow hazy, its edges melting into a kind of association-broth. We do sometimes pine for a dry shore. But then Ausubel surprises us, and something gorgeous cuts through: “my mother released my braids, which fell palm-warmed onto my neck”; “my father was not home yet and the room was like a painting we had made for him”; “the three of us children raced to show our father the evidence that we, too, had been alive all day long.”
Even so, because of its ornateness, Ausubel’s prose seems to float around the idea of trauma — she addresses the Holocaust by embroidering around its edges. Even death, when it comes, is given an eerie magic: a baby’s bones sewn together and capped with a bird’s skull are made to dance like a marionette; a mother, about to give away her only child, watches snow turn into apple blossoms and bank against his sleeping back. Moments like this flirt with whimsy, perhaps not as directly as Everything Is Illuminated, but in a more explicitly sentimental way. It’s not so much that Ausubel is unserious about such serious things, but that the evenness of her tone — lilting, singsong, its solemn beauty never wavering — makes her seriousness seem like a pose. Her words tend to abstract rather than describe (there’s the mention of “a man with a square moustache,” which feels unnecessarily oblique). This can seem like the enactment of a certain idea of literariness, a common beginner’s mistake. Her prose is sometimes just too decorated to access real pain: when Lena dreams of “the dictator’s” underground wedding, a disjunction occurs as the fragile magical-realist world rams up against what happened.
As in fact it must: belief, though beautiful, must occasionally bow to fact if it’s not to become fanatic. In Zalischik, history arrives in the form of a single bullet through the side of a barn, the new world suddenly breached by the old. Yet, half by fault of Ausubel’s prose style and half by that of her story, once outside the village’s protective shell, places and times never seem quite real. Lena, sent away to tell the village’s story, is lost in a world she did not create with no idea which way or when she is traveling, nor even how old she might be. Most of the time, we don’t know either, so it’s astonishing when it’s manifestly fall or spring, when we find ourselves on a boat, or in a country with a name like “Italy.” The novel is so adrift in its ahistorical linguistic idyll that when history intrudes, we find it difficult to believe:
“It’s over,” the man in the black hat said, “Hitler is dead. The camps are being liberated.”
“I don’t know what those things are,” I admitted.
It’s the first time Lena has heard of the camps, and the first time Hitler has been given a name. It’s hard not to wonder why Lena thought she was in danger, or why her story and sacrifice mattered so much if this is so.
As it turns out, though, No One Is Here Except All of Us does have a historical foundation: it roughly follows the story of Ausubel’s Romanian great-grandmother. But adherence to the facts of a family past is not Ausubel’s métier: “My territory, my work, was the dark matter, the emptiness of what is not known,” she writes in her afterword, “what is unthinkable yet can still be felt. My head was quiet, but something in my chest knew what to do.” This echoes Lena’s explanation of how she came to be narrating scenes she was absent from, and its intimation of intuitive historical understanding is disconcerting given the novel’s context. But the story’s not really about history. It’s about how history’s remembered. And Ausubel’s novel, for all its faults, succeeds in posing the narrative question of why pins hurt and cabbages roll. It’s a way of getting at how stories — including its own — can both protect and injure us when the big cruel world comes knocking on our doors.