A kaddish for history: holocaust memory in Ehud Havazelet's bearing the body.
For surely we have learned in the disposition of time since the Holocaust that the irreversible memory of events is not contained in the individual histories of those who survived the atrocities. Rather, the memories of the Holocaust--the intractable fact of the Holocaust--are carried over, witnessed anew, by subsequent generations, generations for whom the Holocaust, despite the elliptically cryptic silence that often surrounds it, has, from the very beginning, indelibly formed and informed the lives of the second- and third-generation, a past that, as one of Havazelet's characters in the short story "To Live in Tiflis in the Springtime" puts it, "seeped across the walls and floor. It was no longer something to be recalled from a distance--it was there in front of him, to walk into if he dared" (239). These are generations who must bear the weight of history, generations for whom consciousness of the Holocaust has been entrusted, if reluctantly and despairingly so--even in the ellipses of silence. As a kind of cautionary midrash, Havazelet's Bearing the Body unsparingly exposes the conditions by which children of Holocaust survivors attempt to redeem the suffering of their parents, a shared grief that, as Daniel Mirsky laments, "wasn't supposed to be ours" (48). And even though Daniel wants to convince himself that one "can't lose what you never had," for the children of survivors, the weight of the Holocaust becomes by necessity and inevitability a shared loss (132). For Havazelet's characters, moving through a post-Holocaust world is a matter of pushing aside the seemingly endless detritus of history in order to give meaning, not only to their parents' lives, but to their own fragmented lives, too, in the ongoing rupture of the past.
In Bearing the Body, to give meaning to the Holocaust is to create, in its absence, a midrashic narrative told posthumously, that is, a narrative that evokes the voices of the dead as well as the singed voices of memory. Throughout the novel, the Holocaust essentially is conveyed by its absence, in the spaces and pauses that break the ongoing narrative of the present. But these fissures are openings for midrashic moments of continuity and extension, an invitation to carry the weight of memory into the present. As Jonathan Safran Foer observes in the novel Everything is Illuminated, "the origin of a story is always an absence," one that in a long tradition of Jewish storytelling carries with it the obligation to be filled, to bear witness to the particulars of Jewish history and survival (230). But sometimes such telling, "before you lose the chance," as Sol Mirsky comes belatedly to recognize, requires a hiatus, a silence in which one might reconstruct the fragments of memory into something larger than the fleeting descent of traumatic recall (254). For, as Sol's son Nathan, confronted by broken extracts of narratives, cautions, "each bit of information seemed isolated, from a different story, a piece to a different puzzle" (186). As one of Grace Paley's narrators, in the short story "Debts," insists, "there is a long time in me between knowing and telling," between, that is, identifying the unconscious threads of memory and locating and articulating the language of loss (Enormous Changes 9).
Making a story out of absence, out of the caesura born of rupture and loss, is all the more imperative and precarious when the narrative hopes to transmit the experiences of the Holocaust--imperative because the increasing distance from the events imperils memory, dangerous because bearing witness to the Holocaust exposes what one does not, cannot know. Here, absences are openings, moments of extensional disclosures, at the heart of which is the core of character, of the impulse for evasion constrained by an ethic of bearing witness to a narrative of trauma. And although the Holocaust survivor in Sol Mirsky would like to delude himself into believing that memory "was contained, bounded by event ... recollection ... a matter of choice," it is his memory that betrays him ironically by being faithful to his own painfully traumatic history, a narrative willfully projecting itself onto the specious advent of time (70). As Sol's son Daniel cruelly concedes in a grim appropriation of Horace, "Quam minimum credula postero," place no trust in tomorrow, that is, in the unconscious projection of a future divorced from the ambushes of the past (132).
Bearing the Body tells the story of two sons, Nathan and Daniel Mirsky, who come of age in America during the turbulent period of the 1960s, and of their father, Sol Mirsky, a survivor of the Holocaust, who devotes his life to collecting and archiving names and photographs of those who perished at the hands of the Nazis, those all but lost to history. In attempting to locate and record the dates of departure, transport number, and place of incarceration of the victims and so provide their surviving families with some, if scarce, knowledge of their horrifying fate, Sol attempts to find a metaphorical burial ground for those whose deaths otherwise would remain unchronicled, eclipsed by history. Sol's solitary vigilance--an isolated vigil--becomes a kind of self-imposed penance. After working all day in the shoe factory, his nights are spent isolated with the dead, "night after sleepless night in his dusty, half-lit cave, buried in paper, charts, letters, photographs, his private inviolable domain," a space uninfringeable, not to be disturbed by his sons (95). Nathan, recalling an early foray into his father's private world, "sneaking ... when his father wasn't around, just to look. He remembered thinking, So this is where he lives. Once ... he'd taken a thick file from the shelves. What he found inside was incomprehensible--timetables, lists of names and numbers, foreign place names so full of consonants they hurt the eyes" (95). Startled in his trespass by his father, "Nathan had no idea what to do; the urge to run, so common in him, rose. Inside, the familiar queasy moil of feelings he had whenever his father looked at him--regret, a spreading shame.... Nathan ... heard himself thinking. Other kids play catch. Other fathers speak. Sol's immobile face unwatchable, severe, and hardest of all to see, a little wild in the eyes, as if with fright. What could Nathan have possibly found out? Nobody said a word" (95-6). The fraught sense of shame is rooted for father and son in an impossibly articulated, unconscious fear of trespass and culpability, in having exposed something reprehensibly secretive in the other and in having done so, uncovered an ignoble weakness in oneself. They are tied together by something primal in their silence, an instinctive response to fear and exhibition. While Nathan's silence is aggrieved, Sol's is cynically defensive.
Sol, living in the shattered past, trying to piece together that which has been irretrievably broken, cuts loose his sons, willfully, if ineffectually, preventing their entry into a world from which he wishes to protect them. "'What was a man to tell his children,'" Sol wonders. "'Everything? And what could he say? ... Once I had a family, like this one.... Once, once, once--what was the point? What could be gained? ... Once there was a pond so full of human ash it was muddy gray and the wind was full of it like snow. Once people died around me every day.... This? This to small boys?" (279). The elliptical mantra "once, once, once"--blessing and curse--both arrests time and evokes a timeless condition of despair and raw desire. It is in the ellipsis, the trope of omission, that Sol's silence is both an act of defiance and shame--a provocative, incendiary silence bequeathed to his sons. Sol Mirsky is a man who erroneously has forced himself to believe, after his incarceration in the concentration camps, that "nothing ... would touch him ever again" (76). It will take his sons' seemingly irreverent denial of their father's history and, ultimately, the tragic death of his oldest son Daniel to prove Sol irrevocably wrong.
Set primarily in San Francisco in the mid-1990s, the novel moves back and forth in time and place, traversing an American landscape from the 1960s into the 1990s, a period piece of distinct moments of social and political unrest amidst the confusions and seductions of autonomous self-determinism and self-destructive obliviousness. The novel opens in 1968. America is at war with its own, and the Mirsky family's dinner is upended by the unexpected sight of their brilliant oldest son, Daniel, a student at Columbia, sitting on the ledge of a campus building in the midst of a political demonstration, smiling directly at the camera as he is dragged off by the police. This is an important opening scene for it reveals paradoxically the isolation of the family in the very heart of family life. The presumed ordinariness and routinized comfort evoked by the portrait of a family at dinner suggests here its menacing opposite and ominous other. Indeed, the contrived simulacrum of family--Nathan, his father, and mother--makes all the more apparent their anxious separation from each other. Having learned well, as Nathan puts it, "the art of segregating himself," he and his parents apprehensively are brought together in the charged electric air of the Mirsky household only by the image of Daniel Mirsky on the television set--Daniel, whose defiant bravado in the face of his family's stunned silence, from the novel's beginning, sets the stage for the unresolved tensions that animate a history unwound and reimagined (4). Although miles away, Daniel's presence looms large, his transmogrification conjuring him up anew, eerily sucking all the air out of the room. His name alone, a solitary incantation uttered by his mother as Daniel's image fills the screen, brings into sharp focus the uncontrollable accidents of occasion and character, a compression of time and history. For the novel quickly shifts to the year 1995 and the notice by letter of Daniel's drug-related murder in San Francisco. With the letter comes the insufferable knowledge that Nathan Mirsky, Daniel's self-loathing, phobically reluctant younger brother, must embark on a journey with his intractable and unreachable father to take possession of the ashes of their dead brother and son, ashes contained in a box not unlike the pictures of the dead so reverently preserved in shoe boxes stored on the shelves of Sol's sequestered room.
Bearing the Body, with cunning elasticity, also moves back in time to the Holocaust, the catastrophic events of which are pieced together in retrospect, painfully brought to the surface by Sol Mirsky's treacherous memory, a memory reawakened by the tragic death of his long estranged son, Daniel. It is Daniel's death that brings Sol and Nathan together as they travel to San Francisco to claim Daniel's ashes. And thus Sol must bear the body of his son just as he bears the bodies of the victims who died in the Holocaust and whose deaths, like Daniel's, haunt him still. In bearing the weight of Daniel's body, both literally and figuratively, Sol and Nathan Mirsky, unwitting companions in grief, bear the weight of history, of histories colliding and colluding.
Bearing the Body covers perilous and unstable terrain: the vulnerability of family; the destabilizing political and social upheaval of the 1960s; the drug-infected violence of urban America; the isolation and fragmentation of contemporary life; the incapacitating memory of the Holocaust; the alienation wrought by trauma; and the recurring ambushes of history, both global and personal. It is at the intersection of these narratives that the magnitude of loss and grief is so palpably felt. And through a complex web of narrative layering, moderated by memory both lapsed and elongated, the Holocaust surfaces in Havazelet's novel as the ultimate measure of all psychic and cultural estrangement, the final marker of personhood for the entire Mirsky family. Havazelet's novel is a searing portrait of loss and fragmentation, a story of a singular family's anguish and betrayal in the face of a history that would consume them. This is a story of the dissolution of a family and the disastrous consequences left in its wake, an ancient and contemporary story of biblical proportions set against the specter of the Holocaust, whose tentacles reach far into the next generation, a generation that bears the weight of a history both of its own and not of its own making.
Indeed, for Sol's son Daniel, a generation removed from the events of the Holocaust, "another history, not his, not one he'd ever know, sifted its weight over him like ash," like the ashes of the dead, a precursor to his own premature, violent death (133). Here the Holocaust is the measure of history, where all tracks lead--personal and political--the window through which everything is witnessed and interpreted, a narrative "overheard" by the children of survivors, exhumed by memory. And despite Sol's bargain with his wife not to impose their past trauma upon their sons--a history never to "be shared, could never be (were it even possible), with the boys. Let them look forward; wasn't this what a parent gave a child, a ground from which to look out at life ... Wasn't that love." (248)--they, too, are haunted by a history inadvertently bequeathed to them, a history that follows them persistently, resistant to the insistent demands of the present.
Bearing the Body calls into sharp question our limited ability to make sense of time and history in the wake of the Holocaust. Surely for Sol and his wife Freda, survivors of the atrocities, the linearity of time is thrown off, arrested by their past experiences, never again to be steered sequentially, "making all that came after a lie" (132). So, too, their pre-Holocaust lives seemingly have been erased by all that came after, never to be reclaimed. But the memory of the Holocaust is not generationally contained; rather, it becomes the filter through which all motives and actions are measured, all found to be wanting, distorted, magnified, and diminished. Daniel, American-born, a child of seemingly free passage into an age of autonomous self-expression, believes his life to be eclipsed by the horrors of his father's past. Daniel, sounding not unlike his disenchanted and disenfranchised father, wonders, too, at the shape and scope of the psychic landscape in which he is forced to negotiate: "Where was the world he had brought me into, taught me to live in? ... Where the violence, the betrayal? Where was God, cynical, patient, holding all the cards, with eternity to watch our failures unfold? This world, his world, suddenly gone" (50-1). And Daniel's anxious brother Nathan also feels the destabilizing weight of the past, "the world around him ... a complicated balance miraculously poised against chaos. One wrong move and he would topple, taking it all with him" (232). It is as if the Mirsky family holds its collective breath; the only sure thing for them is impending disaster. And while Daniel insists that "what everyone does, what you figure's coming to you, is your own story, your life. It's your own history you're trying to make," his life and his brother's are tied inseparably to Sol's (288).
It is no surprise that the center of tension locates itself among father and sons, Freda, wife and mother, long since dead and unable to mediate the fear and anger that both tears her husband and sons apart and binds them irretrievably together. It is not Sol's fate alone "to take memory in the body and carry it, forever" (242). For Nathan and Daniel are held hostage by the ever-remote yet palpably visualized dead, their lives determined by the inheritance of history. Within this moral calculus, everyone fails everyone else and predictably so. Havazelet throughout the novel makes clear in his characters' myopic defensiveness and displaced fear the desperate impossibilities we expect from others. Nathan refuses Daniel's desperate overtures, believing that he has long since discharged his obligations to his drug-addled brother, convincing himself that Daniel's self-destruction was a form of betrayal, seeing in Daniel's ruin and defection from the family his own abandonment: "He left. He disappeared. He lied to me about what the world was" (189). And even though Nathan justifies his own defection from his brother as an act of helplessness--"to see him fall apart so thoroughly so miserably. I couldn't do it. I couldn't stop it and I couldn't stand anymore to help it happen" (188)--his renunciation is nonetheless a desertion for which he will pay dearly. And even Freda unintentionally, but no less markedly, betrays her sons by failing to protect them from their father's uncontainable wrath and accusatory silence, ultimately failing them all by dying.
The most crushing failure, of course, is Sol's, who believes himself to have failed everyone, "the truth being there was no one is his long life he had not betrayed" (254). Perhaps the most egregious failure, however, is that of the covenant. For Sol, no longer a believer, "the only prayers he knew, didn't know really, just the sound of the words, their cadence, carrying absolutely no meaning to him," the belief in something larger than himself became simply the recognition that there are no limits to what one man will inflict on another (171). In the articulation of such knowledge, the covenant, utterly bankrupt and impotent, lays fallow. The failure of the covenant is here the failure of conscience, for Sol the whole human enterprise no more than a cosmic joke. Railing against a blackness that would have obliterated him were it not for chance or fate or uncertain luck, Sol, "wav[ing] his fists at the empty sky," nonetheless indicts a God he no longer believes exists: "This, you sonofabitch. This" (280). And even for Sol's brother Chaim, who perished in the Holocaust, and who, despite all evidence to the contrary, "despite the daily weight of evidence, believed in the Jewish God, a deity of provenance and mercy and alert resourceful care," the covenant cannot withstand the weight of ultimate human failure. So even God-the Holocaust as proof--fails, the covenant discharged.
Sol's history is an unwelcome but no less defining legacy crushingly carried on by his sons. For Daniel, in particular, who all his life has attempted to refigure himself as distinct from his distant, reproachful father, the events of the Holocaust, like the pictures archived in his father's deathly collection, are indelibly etched on his consciousness: "the pictures of the roundups disturb most ... Jews gathering in Amsterdam for the trains--little boy in shorts and black shoes. Sol somewhere, not much older. In the barracks, horror ... startling in their familiarity" (288). And while he would like to think of those whose lives were destroyed as "removed, artifacts of a different world," he knows them to be an ineffaceable part of his own life (288). Daniel comes to recognize that, like it or not, neither he nor his brother can separate himself from the dead who precede them. Both brothers, like their remote and disparaging father, are beholden to and defined by the same shape of history that, as Daniel puts it in a note written before his death, "you never chose. But here it is. And soon enough it is yours. Soon enough you come to see it always was" (288).
But such knowledge comes too late. The sense of betrayal and failure that motivate the dynamics among Sol and his two sons is so immense that neither son can forgive his father for being the man he haphazardly became, a man not of his own design, but shaped by the duplicitous indifference of a history that defrauded him. Silently keening for the lost man he might once have been, Sol bitterly admits: "I saw things I can't explain, even tell. I got changed.... Parts of me killed off how do I know they weren't the best parts?" (279). But, if Nathan and Daniel cannot forgive their father, neither can Sol forgive his sons for what he believes to be their intolerable betrayal in willfully turning from this history. In a single moment of exposure, but a scene the novel has been hurtling toward all along, time becomes frozen and the vast differences in experience and character bring into sharp focus the incalculable loss. During a labor strike at Sol's shoe factory in the late 1960s, "the union breaking in, workers looking at him suddenly like he was a jailer, a Kommandant," his employees, waiting at the loading docks, systematically tear open box after box of shoes, throwing them into a pile "as high as the loading platform, hundreds of Well-Built shoes, glistening new with polish, some still trailing blue tissue paper; shoes for people to wear, now a pile of garbage. It made him sick, physically sick, to watch.... It was all he could do now not to fall to his knees and heave the bile that swam in his mouth" (249-50). Arrested by the sight of the shoes thrown so carelessly in such heedless, wanton abandon, shoes heaped higher and higher, Sol is dragged back to another time and place, the piles of shoes taken from the dead, his world before he deceptively thought he could exchange it, start anew without the cunning intervention of the past, all chicanery, a trick of the imagination, since "for Sol ... there was no past, no present, one eternal Now erasing all that came before [the Holocaust], making all that came after a lie" (132). Characteristic of second-generation writing, such categories as past and present fail to represent the extent of the distortion of time and place engendered by the defining rupture of the Holocaust. The past and present collapse, as if the very air is sucked out of possibility, the future a chimera.
As Sol, stunned and reeling from the sight of the mounds of shoes piled higher and higher, as if without end, a metonymic extension of the swells of dead bodies that follow him, Sol spies on the other side of the chain link fence his two sons, standing in bemused satisfaction, insouciantly laughing, the protest to them nothing but sport. For this, for their willful absence of conscience and memory, for their careless denial of their own history, Sol cannot bring himself to forgive them. Indeed, for Sol, blinded and blindsided, the world becomes reduced only to this: "the factory ... shoes glinting, small popping sounds as new ones hit, rolled, his own yard a mound of corpses, and beyond it, his own sons in a casual embrace, laughing" (253). Outraged, ambushed by this indefensible act of filial betrayal, Sol believes his sons to have made a mockery, not only of his own life--"all we went through, and this, so they can make a joke, a parade" (261)--but of history, of the vast, collective expression of suffering. Sol's worst fears transpire anew: that the past will have no meaning and that his experience is no more than an accident of history. Of course, in his act of treachery, Daniel figuratively slays the father and in doing so, ultimately, replaces the father, his own death sadly the embodiment of the death that would have been Sol's, the death that was designed for him but that he fortuitously eluded. But in this primal scene, Sol can only see his sons aligned with an arbitrary and faithless universe, "laughing at my life, my memory, all I ever had." And so, in an unretractable moment Sol beseechingly, "prayed to the god I knew wasn't there to blast us all dead on the spot (279). And here it is, not surprisingly, to Daniel, his oldest son, that Sol directs his greatest fury: "To me you're dead" (261). Denying Daniel's existence is, inexorably, a death sentence just as sure as if Sol took aim and fired. Sol casts out Daniel as he himself was "cast out" of the stream of normal life. And the loss, for both father and son, is irrevocable, Sol's words, like blessings and curses, never to be recanted. As Sol crushingly laments, "once you are cast out there is no getting back in" (280). For as the prophetic voice of the biblical Israel makes painfully clear, "If I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved," thus dramatizing the failure of the covenant (Genesis 43:14).
Both Sol's and Daniel's acutely felt sense of betrayal is transformative, securing the antagonisms and resentments that have been in the background of their relationship all along, widening the gap between father and son until neither can be reached, despite the truth, as Sol's wife in the face of her husband's unutterable decree and her sons' unthinking folly knows to be certain, that "the only sins you will never be forgiven are the ones you commit against yourself" (262). In Daniel's dismissal and, by default, Nathan's dubious ascendancy, we are reminded here, in some ways, of the anxiously figured story of Jacob and Esau, two brothers vying for the father's blessing, purloined by the younger brother through stealth and deceit. Yet in this instance, neither son receives the blessing of the father, who is so transformed by the Holocaust that he can only see in his sons a distorted reflection of his own suffering and failure. And Daniel, in a desperate attempt to run from his father's past and the immensity of his own sense of failure and betrayal, opts out of this precarious world for the dangerously false panacea of a drug-induced oblivion, a chemical eradication of all that he cannot face about himself. In attempting to escape from the pain and the gnawing awareness of the enormity of the past, Daniel "had made his choice. He would, at last, choose the present, no past insistently hovering, no future holding out its spurious soft lies" (130). However, the present here is indelibly mortgaged to the past, so much so that even one's immediate failures are not entirely one's own. As Havazelet makes tragically clear, the present age can only be seen in relation to a past that is at once impossibly unspoken and unspeakably possible.
As the narrative events move back and forth in time, Daniel's voice emerges in flashbacks, ultimately taking over the narrative, and readers come to know him in death as well as those characters whose lives become increasingly intertwined as the novel progresses. It is Daniel whose voice resurfaces in shards, in fragments, slivers of erratic, disconnected thoughts written on scraps of paper, words from a dead man, found by Nathan in the flat in San Francisco that Daniel shared with his lover Abby and her young son Ben. It is Ben, the fatherless boy who, with Daniel, constructs a world on paper, and for whom Daniel briefly stands in as father. Daniel thus unconsciously attempting to assuage his own father's guilt and redeem himself, but he ultimately fails Ben, too. As Daniel tries to write his way back into life through fractured notes written to a brother who will only see them when it is too late, the found fragments of dissonant, aborted chords, thoughts cut off, elliptical, are unmailed but ultimately not unspoken by Daniel's weighted, posthumous voice. Daniel's voice has been waiting in the wings, only to emerge as the central dramatic force in the novel's final pages. Thus in giving voice to Daniel long after his death, Havazelet brings him back to life. That is, through prosopopoeia, the rhetorical trope in which the voices of the dead are summoned and thus reanimated, Havazelet exposes the extent of Daniel's suffering and redeems him. So, too, Sol Mirsky, on a mission to wrest meaning from the ruins of the Holocaust and lessen his fear that his experiences and those of others who suffered are more than a mere accident of history, evokes the presence of the dead in his tireless search for the missing. Taking on the burden of attempting to locate and uncover the fate of those who were deported, sent to concentration camps, and lost to their surviving families, Sol brings them back from the dead if only for a moment of acknowledged recognition. Prosopopoeia may be seen as a fractional, fleeting antidote to the absence that is the Holocaust. Giving a presence to obscurity, a weight to absence, through the figure of prosopopoeia, allows the dead to speak, unmediated, without intercession from the tempering distortions of time or memory. In writing about Holocaust poetry, Susan Gubar suggests that "prosopopoeia allows the authors who manipulate it to summon the posthumous voice ... and thereby to suggest that the anguish of the Shoah does not, and will not, dissipate" (192). Prosopopoeia is not so much a matter of speaking for the dead as much as it is a trope that fills an absence with the voiced presence of the dead, thus locating, as Gubar poses, "a language for the staggering horror" (191). In this regard, Daniel's death--a dying that takes place not in the concentration camps, but against the charred landscape of urban America--evokes the death of those murdered before him. As Havazelet suggests, the Holocaust cannot be made a figure of representation; one can only represent the impossibility of doing so. Daniel, so indifferently gunned down in a na'ive attempt to confront the sale of drugs to school children, embodies, in his dying, an expression of the absolute disregard for life, a moral failure of human conscience and design. It is thus that Daniel Mirsky's found voice reaches his brother Nathan only after his death, his voice found on scraps of paper, fragmented notes, and letters unsent but kept by Daniel's lover and handed over to Nathan as an offering, as embodied story.
The story of the Mirsky brothers is also a version of Cain and Abel set against the isolation of contemporary America, in which Nathan Mirsky deeply resents the obligatory imposition of his magnetic older brother, Daniel, the "Aquarian golden boy" (130), from whom Nathan has tried to extricate himself and toward whom he mistakenly "consoled himself with visions of his bright future and with the thought he's finally outgrown his older brother ... free to be his own man" (181). His early adolescent infatuation with his brother eroded, Nathan has long since dissociated himself from his demanding, drug-hazed brother, the weight of his obligation to Daniel far too much for him to bear, Daniel's words falling on deaf ears, like "hundreds of phones ringing in empty rooms where no one lived anymore and where no one would be hurrying back to pick them up and say, Hello, sorry, are you still there?" (228-9). Nathan, falsely believing that his obligation to his brother was long ago spent, in refusing to respond to Daniel's erratic letters, cuts his brother loose, so that for Daniel "writing his brother [was] like flinging a lifeline three thousand miles out to sea and never feeling it land" (130). Nathan, willfully, self-destructively turning his back on his brother's precarious condition and obvious weakness, does everything he can to cause others to hate him as much as he loathes himself. Unable to sustain a relationship, Nathan chooses rather to look from a safe distance through the shuttered windows of other people's lives. If Daniel responds to his father by anesthetizing himself in drugs, then Nathan does so by inuring himself to the burden of intimacy, seeking, rather, the numbing sedative of self-containment and hardened inaccessibility in the face of an "emotional mayhem that left him wanting, more than anything, to run" (35).
What Nathan tragically comes to find in the course of the novel is that his willful abdication of his responsibility toward his brother has sentenced him, like Cain, to uneasy wandering, cut off from the consoling community of others. It is through Nathan's inadvertent connection with Abby and Ben that Nathan is finally able to do belatedly for his brother what he could never bring himself to do during Daniel's impulsive and misspent life. It is only through the accidental interruption of strangers--Abby and Ben--that he can at least partially atone for his failures. It is only, in fact, through his chance encounter with Abby and her young son Ben, whose pure, unadulterated love for Daniel and in whom Nathan must see something of his younger self, that Nathan, finally, can bear the burden of the heartbreakingly intimate enmeshment of family, coming finally to realize that he "loved his brother. And the loss, the misery suffered mostly alone ... settled over Nathan as a new weight, different, not entirely unwelcome. Nathan loved his brother, and how hard it would be now, knowing he'd never be able to tell him so" (269).
At the same time, Sol, the wandering Jew, roaming the foreign streets of San Francisco, displaced as he once had been as a newly disembarked immigrant, felt "like he had again just arrived from Europe, foolish, agape, incongruous in his heavy winter coat and cap, watching a spectacle he had no hope of understanding or making his way into" (39). This time, however, Sol carries with him the ashes of his son, "the box in his hands, spattered with sweat and streaked gray ... hauling him downward, heavier every step.... This is not what a father should do. A father shouldn't be carrying his dead son deeper and deeper into a place he didn't know, all that was left of him in a plastic box. Surely, if there was any reason, an order to anything at all, this was wrong. Daniel, he found himself saying.... He clutched the box to him one last time and turned up another hill" (280). Sol will not, cannot, relinquish the box of ashes, for, as his son Nathan learned long ago, "you don't fill an absence by taking more away" (23). Sol carries the ashes as a totem to memory, and so the remains of his son become the metonymically irreducible mark of a life historicized by the six million murdered.
Bearing the Body is among a new generation of Holocaust novels, ones that carry the originating loss into the twenty-first century, ongoing narratives in which memory is carried in much the same way that Sol carries the ashes of his dead son: like an offering borne before him to be transmitted with care to the next generation. So, too, the young child Ben, his drugged mother unconscious in their flat, walks the streets with an old cigar box containing the broken remains of a toy dog, "number 36," destroyed in his grief and rage when Daniel, his last hope for permanence and security, by his dying betrays him too. As Jewish legend would have it, there are thirty-six tzaddikim in the world, thirty-six lamed vov, righteous, just men, upon whom the world depends. The lamed vov are indistinguishable from other people and are unaware of their appointed role, but, through acts of compassion, they bear the suffering of the Jewish people. Such messengers appear in the least predictable forms when one least anticipates them, emerging, for Havazelet, in those most vulnerable: the young, abandoned child, Ben; the tenuously anchored Daniel; the homeless veteran whose barely coherent ramblings about angels and heralds are prayers for the most vulnerable among us, all products of our age and history and anxieties about the past and the future. As one lamed vov leaves this earth, another takes his place in order to redeem the world from suffering. But if Bearing the Body is a novel of loss, it is also a novel of redemption--of redemption failed by lassitude, by arrogance, by weakness, and by fear, but also of redemption carried out, as often as not by fortuitous encounters, by the expression of rachmones, compassion for others born from shared suffering. For it is finally in the collective expression of shared suffering that one might begin to redeem the suffering of others.
As Sol carries the box of ashes through the labyrinthine streets of San Francisco, he comes to bear the fragile weight of his son's body and his own. He, like both his sons, bears that which is also borne upon him. For to bear the weight of the body is to take it on, to acknowledge responsibility for it, to accept it, as one accepts defeat, or love. All Havazelet's characters come to bear the weight of history--a history both proximate and distant: the weight of family, the weight of addiction, the weight of loss, the weight of regret, the weight of the past, the weight of the dead, the weight of memory, the weight of their times. At the novel's close, the characters, previously lost, scattered, isolated in their grief and confusion, come together at the Pacific's edge to scatter Daniel's ashes, and in their momentary stay against the debilitating weight of their fear, they find the possibility for what it means to bear witness to this life. Here they find redemption in memory through the symbolic reenactment of the ritual of tashlich, the casting off of one's sins in the water, and here too, the sins of history. And so, to Havazelet's question, "How do you miss a ghost?" the only answer is: carefully, so that its memory does not dissolve in the corrosiveness of time. Thus Bearing the Body, finally, is a kind of kaddish, a prayer for the dead, not only for Daniel, and for those who perished in the Holocaust, but also for the unending ravages of post-Holocaust history and memory unburied.
Foer, Jonathan Safran. Everything Is Illuminated. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Print.
Gubar, Susan. "Prosopopoeia and Holocaust Poetry in English: Sylvia Plath and Her Contemporaries," The Yale Journal of Criticism 14:1 (2001): 191-215. Print.
Havazelet, Ehud. Bearing the Body. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. Print.
--. "To Live in Tiflis in the Springtime," Like Never Before. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. Print.
Paley, Grace. "Debts," in Enormous Changes At the Last Minute. 1960. Reprint, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983. Print.
Victoria Aarons, Trinity University
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|Publication:||Studies in American Jewish Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2010|
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