Sunday, May 20, 2012

Hope: A Tragedy: Dark (Really Dark) Humor

I don't know how Amazon and all those other book sites think they can predict which books I'm going to buy (or read or like). I can't even explain what draws me to some books over others. But something about Shalom Auslander's novel, Hope: A Tragedy drew me in, despite the implausibility of the plot: Kguel, the narrator, right after moving into an old farm house with his wife and young son, hears something in his attic.  Suspecting mice, he climbs the attic steps and finds, instead of rodents, Anne Frank typing away.  She is not only not dead, but she's been living in the attic for years, working on a novel.  She's under tremendous pressure since, as she keeps pointing out, her first book sold 32 million copies.  (I imagine Harper Lee could commiserate if she wished to speak publicly on the matter.)

Kugel realizes he can't possibly turn the intruder over to the authorities.  He imagines the headlines:  Anne Frank turned over to the police.  By a Jew.

Her presence only adds to Kugel's problems:  He has moved his mother into his home after her doctor has given her only a short time to live.  His relationship with his mother is particularly complicated because she convinced him in childhood that she was a survivor, a deception revealed to him on a school field trip to the Holocaust Museum, when his teacher disabuses him of the notion, having knows his mother since childhood.  She doesn't let go of the lie easily.  Kugel and his wife have also taken in a tenant who insists on being able to use a section of the attic for storage, obviously impossible with the interloper there.

Meanwhile, Kugel's fears are compounded by a rash of farmhouse fires, closer and closer to his home. He jeopardizes his job, his marriage, and his mental faculties as he comes to terms with his complicated relationship with Miss Frank.

Coincidentally, shortly after finishing the book, I visited the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. with a couple of teaching colleagues, where we met two German teachers and more than twenty students who traveled with them to study and research there.  At their debriefing session following their presentations of their research projects, they were led to consider how to process what they had seen. They were then asked to write a letter to someone back home in Germany who might ask why they had taken the trip for this particular purpose.  The teacher leading the discussion acknowledged that some people will ask (as characters in this novel do): Why do we need to keep talking and thinking about the Holocaust? It was a long time ago.

They had some particularly mature comments and answers. Auslander's novel doesn't necessarily answer any questions, but he certainly poses a number of them.  And as the title might suggest, the entire book would serve well to illustrate the literary term "irony."

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