Book Review: “Poland, A Green Land” — A Meaningful Reflection on Horror
By Robert Israel
Aharon Appelfeld’s final novel is a haunting meditation on grappling with past hatreds that are all too present.
Poland, A Green Land by Aharon Appelfeld. Translated from the Hebrew by Stuart Schoffman. Penguin Random House, New York, 230 pages, $27.
Novelist Aharon Appelfeld, who died at age 85 in 2018, was unique among writers who chronicled and survived the Holocaust. He employed the time-honored devices of literary artistry — character development, spare dialogue, and descriptions — to evoke the pathos, horror, cruelty, and loss during this troubling period. His work is the opposite of the flash fiction that’s become so popular today in print and digital publications, stories that cater to short attention spans. Readers today seem to prefer to read 150 characters (or less). Anything longer and they are tempted to turn away. If paragraphs cannot be eyeballed on hand-held devices, readers quickly swipe left. Appelfeld demands that readers slow down and absorb prose that explores — and exposes — the internal and external lives of his often bedeviled characters.
This dedication to creating a space for meaningful reflection was evident in how Appelfeld came across as a man and artist when one met him in person, as I did in Boston in 1990, and as Arts Fuse writer Susan Miron noted in her vivid remembrance of him during her visits with Appelfeld here and later, at his home in Jerusalem.
Appelfeld’s work reminds me of the stories by 20th-century Danish writer Karen Blixen, who wrote in English under the pen name Isak Dinesen. Her novels and tales leave readers grappling with otherworldly sensations. Dinesen’s English prose is much more ornate than Appelfeld’s (at least in translation) – more “gothic. But both writers create seemingly realistic atmospheres that are on the edge of transforming into something else — they leave readers off-kilter. When we read their stories we are pulled into imagined worlds where evocations of lived experience sit on the borderline of fables.
Appelfeld’s last novel, Poland, A Green Land, published posthumously, is very much in this mode. Set in Israel and in Poland, the novel follows the quest of Yaakov Fein, the son of Holocaust survivors, who, when they died, left him with a thriving business in Tel Aviv. But they withheld from him crucial memories of their past hardships in Poland during World War II. Like all Israelis, Yaakov has served in the Israel Defense Forces and, as a veteran, considers himself hardened to life’s harsh realities. He grows increasingly frustrated by his ignorance of the past lives of his parents and grandparents. What did they endure during the black years of the Holocaust? He concludes that the only way he can truly understand this unknown chapter of his ancestry is to travel to Poland to see for himself what life must have been like years before.
Appelfeld, from the onset, shares Yaakov’s ruminations with us, not so much via lengthy stream of consciousness passages but in snippets that record his dreams as well as his passing observations. These descriptive passages run the gamut from how Yaakov sees his neighbors and family in Tel Aviv, noting its frenetic population and numerous modern tensions, to existence in Poland today and how it contrasts with what he learns about what life was like during World War II. Appelfeld also focuses on Yaakov’s coming to terms with embittered differences between him and his wife, who disapproves of him traveling to Poland. Taken in sum, we are given bits and pieces of a portrait of Yaakov that leaves the impression that he is a determined yet troubled soul.
Yaakov embarks on his journey to Poland and he encounters antisemites who have nurtured their hatred for decades as well as kindhearted village folk. As an example of the latter, Yaakov rents a room in the home of a mother and daughter after he arrives in his late parents’ village. They show him kindness and affection. Along with episodes of daily life, there are passages in Appelfeld’s novel that come close to fable, a folklore-infused vision that could have been lifted from the dark stories of the Brothers Grimm. At times, the Polish woods become an enchanted and spooky place, where evil strides beside goodness and the past is never really forgotten, only avoided.
Appelfeld is also attentive to the combative nuances of language. He dramatizes this by exploring how words remembered from one’s youth — Yaakov spoke both Polish and Yiddish in his home — clash with the dominant language, in this case the protagonist’s fluency in Hebrew. These are all ancient tongues, but their meanings can be interpreted in a number of ways. Memories are entangled in the web of these words; the resulting linguistic tension is volatile, murky yet fertile, generating anxieties, fears, and pleasures.
Poland, A Green Land is at once a travelogue, a book of reminiscences, and a probing study in human relations, past and present. I was surprised, given the earlier Appelfeld novels I read, that at this point he longer refrains from sparing readers graphic descriptions of how Jews were violently persecuted and exterminated during the Nazi scourge and cruel occupation of Poland. (Hitherto he had been a strong proponent that fiction should not set foot in the death camps.) Perhaps it took Appelfeld, as a survivor, a lifetime to finally feel free to write these excruciating descriptions. They come off not as parables but as notations that Appelfeld jotted down as he experienced these barbarities first hand.
The novel is haunting. It is difficult. It is a painful meditation on grappling with past hatreds that are all too present.
Robert Israel, an Arts Fuse contributor since 2013, can be reached at email@example.com.