The Novel of the Holocaust

THE NOVEL OF THE HOLOCAUST is coming!  Yessiree–alive, alive, alive!  SEE the freak of the twentieth century, the soul-searching survivor of the ultimate battle of good and evil!  HEAR his pitiful story of torture and degradation!  THRILL to the savage, inhuman acts of his captors!  Yes, he’s coming, one command performance only, the sideshow setting up its tent in the meadow by the river.  All day children have been racing their bikes across the bridge, fighting to peek under the canvas.  Come one, come all!

No, it’s not that bad, the Novel of the Holocaust thinks.  But close. He’s been chosen by Oprah, lifted up, summoned, so he’s going.  He leaves his walk-up in London while fog still hangs over Leicester Square, drenching the statues, the pigeons jabbing at his new shoes, bought just for this trip. He’s got money now, and a famous name (though no face).  He takes a taxi to Gatwick and pauses at the duty-free, the bottles of Scotch like parting gifts.

Irony is never lost on the Novel of the Holocaust. He grins at practically anything, yet is never more than amused.  The Novel of the Holocaust is sober, and dresses well.  If he should laugh out loud, people would turn and stare, as at a crazy old lady.  Walking through the airport, the Novel of the Holocaust talks to himself, remembering storefronts and round, growling buses, letters in precise handwriting–the age that passed while he was waking up, shrugging off the losses of his boyhood. Now he is being celebrated for them. Waiting at the gate, he stops watching the miniature, repeating news and stares at his hands, wonders if this trip is worthwhile.  He is used to a quiet life, his feelings for the world buried in his writing.  Flying makes him nervous, and when the Novel of the Holocaust uses the restroom, he washes his hands before and after, alert for germs.

Of course the Novel of the Holocaust is nostalgic and melancholy, struck dumb by so many families parting as the plane boards. Children cling to their mothers’ necks and scream until the grandparents haul them off, make them wave goodbye. The Novel of the Holocaust doesn’t approve.

First class is new to him, a mark of how his stock has risen–utterly inexplicable, the result of a few phone calls.  It’s like Hollywood, he thinks; one day he’s a starlet, the next a star.  The screen at the front of the cabin shows the soft arc they’re traveling, and their speed, the temperature outside (minus 500).  The hours to New York tick off like a bomb.  The Novel of the Holocaust can’t sleep in his seat, drifts off to wake abruptly, his face falling forward.

The Novel of the Holocaust comes from an island with a view of a rocky shore, huts, goats tinkling as they navigate steep paths. The country people are simple and wise as mud.  Until this, they considered The Novel of the Holocaust a failure, a child who knew too much and did too little.

The Novel of the Holocaust has no brothers or sisters, no wife or husband, no children, only lovers, and those are inconstant, staying a week on their way to Greece or the Middle East.  They see the Novel of the Holocaust as harmless and a little outdated, good-hearted but hardly charming, the devotion he instills lukewarm.  A friend, they say; I’m staying with a friend.  The Novel of the Holocaust makes them breakfast and sees them downstairs to the taxi in the rain.  He holds an umbrella, helps with the door, kisses them meagerly through the window, then climbs back up to the flat, gray in the morning light, the radiators hissing. The Novel of the Holocaust has the whole day and no plans.

Sometimes the Novel of the Holocaust goes to museums, hoping to meet people.  Sometimes the Novel of the Holocaust doesn’t leave the flat for a week, reads the paper cover to cover, flips on BBC 3 and lies on the couch, watching Antonioni, falling asleep.  Sometimes the Novel of the Holocaust closes his eyes in the bathtub and sinks under, his thin hair lifting like kelp, and imagines a stranger’s hand lurking above the surface, waiting to push his head down again.

Maybe fame will change the Novel of the Holocaust. The money is unimportant, but maybe people will see him differently.  There will be fan letters, perhaps, or even fans themselves ringing the bell–girls at university and lunatics drawn by the controversy, crabbed scholars ready to dispute obscure points.

In the Novel of the Holocaust, the hero is a teenager named Franz Ignaz.  Franz Ignaz comes from a city without goats and mud and his parents think he’s wonderful. Franz Ignaz is a musical prodigy, a violinist since the age of four, an unsurpassed interpreter of Moscheles and Mendelssohn.  In the shaking candlelit basement of a safe house, he plays their banned works for families on the run from the Gestapo.

The Novel of the Holocaust took piano lessons at public school but quit in the middle of Czerny’s exercises.  His teacher said he had a passable sense of meter, but no real ear.  To truly play, he said, you have to start much younger, and how could the Novel of the Holocaust explain his parents’ house, the damp of the sea and the one shelf of wrinkled encyclopedias he read over and over?  How could he say he was a dull child, and clumsy, always doing the wrong thing and then getting yelled at?

In the Novel of the Holocaust, the families can’t applaud Franz Ignaz without giving themselves away, so they each touch his cheek, look into his eyes as a way of saying thanks.  Later, in the camps, the same gesture is heartrending, and then brutal, when the commandant uses it.  The Novel of the Holocaust’s mother did the same thing when the Novel of the Holocaust had disappointed her or done something wrong (which was all the time).  He tried to avoid her eyes, because they shamed him, and she took her hand and placed it on the side of his face and turned him toward her and then looked directly into him, and he could not keep his secrets.  How this became such a large part of the book, the Novel of the Holocaust isn’t sure, and what exactly it means escapes him.  Guilt, certainly, or maybe an accusation against her, but when he thinks of his mother, she is blameless.  Certainly she has nothing to do with the six million dead, and to compare his lonely childhood to genocide is an affront, an obscenity.  But that is what he’s done.

The flight attendants come around with hot towels, and the Novel of the Holocaust daubs his face with the lemony scent. After seven hours sitting, this is supposed to refresh him.  He is supposed to be on an important morning show in less than an hour and he needs to figure out what he wants to say.

They will ask him about his parents–obliterated, like the island village, the goats roaming wild in the mountains, sleeping in the kitchens.  They will say the magic name of the camp he survived as a child (no, he will not let them film the number bled green and near-indecipherable on his arm) and ask him to tell his story.

“In the book,” he will say, bringing everything back to Franz Ignaz and Mendelssohn.  He will champion Moscheles, a composer few know, and while this tactic will siphon off some time, it will not save him from his own story, the lines and insane paperwork separating the useful from the dead.  He was a country boy, used to work, his calves bulging from climbing the switchbacked paths.  His parents were old (though, as he explains this to himself, he realizes they were ten years younger than he is now).  It is not a story that interests the Novel of the Holocaust.  It was just bad luck, and that is not what the book is about.

Because the Novel of the Holocaust is magical. In the Novel of the Holocaust, Franz Ignaz meets a friend in the camps, a chess prodigy named David.  David is eight and on the verge of becoming a grandmaster; his father and his father’s father were champions in Breslau.  This is not far from the truth, though the Novel of the Holocaust never met the boy, who was actually from another barracks.  He was Latvian and his name started with a K. Kolya?  He should remember.  In real life, the boy was machinegunned with several hundred other children, but in the Novel of the Holocaust, he and Franz Ignaz have long talks about the logic of the Nazis, and how, by teasing out the metaphysical flaw in their rationalism, they can save everyone.  Obviously this is comic, and while this reasoning didn’t obtain in the real world of the camps, it holds a deeply human and philosophical truth that works brilliantly in the Novel of the Holocaust.

They’re coming down into New York now, Long Island beside them most of the approach.  The Novel of the Holocaust’s ears pop unevenly, and he has to dig a pinkie into one.  When the plane touches down, his neighbors applaud, and he thinks:  Why?

The media escort from his American publishers is waiting for him at the gate, his book held up so he can recognize her. She wants to take his carry-on but he defeats her easily.  Outside, the network limo is his, a leather cavern of a backseat complete with a bar, a TV tuned–permanently, he supposes–to the station he will be on.

“How’s the tour going?” his escort asks, and he explains that this is his first stop, that usually he dreads these things, that he rarely leaves his apartment.  He realizes how pathetic this sounds, even if it is true.  Why does he feel the need to confess to strangers?

“You must be thrilled with the Oprah thing. We are.”

“It was quite a surprise,” he admits. “I must confess I don’t know much about the show.”
“It’s great,” she assures him.  “Everyone watches it.”

Queens is flying by, and suddenly the Novel of the Holocaust is ravenously hungry.  He would like to go to the hotel and sleep.  Already he misses London, the view of the park from the tall windows, his kettle whistling on the burner, calling him away from the table, drawing him back again, briefly, into the real world.

A cemetery a mile long slides by, hills dotted with crosses–how many thousand?–and then the city rises in front of him like a fence, the river blue beneath them.  He has been here before, a guest of his publishers, but never as a celebrity (though, oddly, he feels even less real now, more of an imposter). From the bridge, the facades glint prettily in the orange morning light, and the city seems his.  He wonders if this is how power feels.

How many people live here–ten, twelve million? The Novel of the Holocaust imagines the dead taking their places, the apartments and office buildings filled with them, elevators hopelessly trying to close their doors.

It’s a hazard of the profession, he thinks, or is it just his life, the fact that he was lucky (unlucky) enough to survive? He’s here, the Novel of the Holocaust, about to be beamed across the United States, and he needs to be wise.  The responsibility is impossible.  What in the world can he say to these people?

They will want to talk about the movie, whether he’s happy with the director (no) or with the script, a quilt of the simplest clichés.  They will ask if the movie will be faithful to the book.  Contractually, he is free to speak his mind, but his agent has counseled him to either say nice things or be pleasantly non-committal, take the question to the next abstract level of literature versus popular art.

In the movie of the Novel of the Holocaust, there are love scenes in the bunks.  Franz Ignaz and David are teenagers, and both are in love with the same girl, who in the book is mentioned only twice. The Nazis will all be played by British actors, and the boys by two American TV stars.  The director has decided the whole thing should take place in the summer, for a more striking contrast–birdsong and sun through the trees. He sees them using klezmer music for the village scenes and a brooding symphonic score for the camps.  (Would, perhaps, Mendelssohn be appropriate? the Novel of the Holocaust wanted to ask.)  All of this the director included in a long, episodic letter a month after he signed on to the project.  The Novel of the Holocaust hasn’t heard from him since, only vague updates from his agent.

“Would you sign my copy for me?” his escort asks, and automatically he takes the book from her, finds the title page and crosses out his name.  This is what he is here to do.

“Thanks,” she says.  “I haven’t actually had a chance to read it yet, but it looks interesting.  I really liked Sophie’s Choice.”

“Never read it,” he says, getting her back, but she trumps him, telling him he should see the movie, that Meryl Streep is really good in it.

They’re into Manhattan now, traffic nosing light to light, the sidewalks mobbed.  All dead, he thinks, pictures them all falling, bodies slumped over the steering wheels.  Maybe then they would understand.

That’s what he’ll tell them!  Imagine everyone in the city dead, the doormen and the matrons walking their dogs, the bicycle messengers.

What a pleasant guest he’ll be.

On the way to the studio in midtown they pass a hundred coffee shops.  A man on one corner is eating some kind of sandwich, and it is all the Novel of the Holocaust can do to keep from leaping out and snatching it from him, stuffing it in his mouth with greasy fingers.

“Can we stop and pick up something to eat?” he asks, but there’s no time.

“They’ll have a platter of something in the green room,” she assures him, and they do, a tray of uncut bagels and squeeze packets of cream cheese.  The coffee tastes like varnish.  Someone with the show takes his arm and whisks him away to make-up, where he sits in a barber’s chair before a mirror.  The woman working on him says nothing; she’s busy talking to another woman about her hours, how she wants to trade her shift with someone.  The Novel of the Holocaust sits there with the bib protecting his suit, looking at the powdered and rouged old whore before him. It was all so long ago, he thinks, but that is not what they want to hear.  And honestly, that is not true, not true at all.

They will ask him about the research, the crumbling files and filmy carbons he parsed, the thousands of pictures in the British Museum–all the while flipping those images like a narrated slide show. In the Novel of the Holocaust, Franz Ignaz tries to find out what happened to all the people in his apartment building.  With the help of David and a kapo, he tracks them all down, and soon, after trading favors and paying off the right people, they’re reunited–reconstituted into one barracks, a community again.  They pretend they’re still living in Danzig.  The camp and what’s happening lead them to believe in this, a kind of mass hallucination that helps keep their family intact.

Of course, the last people Franz Ignaz finds are his own mother and father, starving and doomed to a work detail.  Once they are no longer useful, they will be killed, so Franz Ignaz must find a way to smuggle them food.

Did the Novel of the Holocaust ever have a chance to help his own mother and father?  Would he rather have died with them?  These are the old questions, maybe the ones the book was supposed to answer. But of course, it couldn’t.  It was just a book.

“You’re done,” the woman says, unclipping the bib, and he’s lead back to the green room, where an athlete of some sort and his escort have taken his space on the couch.

“Two minutes,” a man with a headset says to the Novel of the Holocaust’s escort, and she asks permission before adjusting his tie and brushing the shoulders of his suit.

“You look gorgeous,” she says, as if they’re sharing a joke.

The man with the headset leads them down a hallway and carefully into a bright studio, gently closing the door behind them.  The set is smaller than the Novel of the Holocaust thought, and raised, like a float in a parade.  Another guest is on under the lights, a blonde woman taller than him, dressed to show off her strong arms and generous chest–a movie star. He wishes he knew who she is.

In real life, the Novel of the Holocaust never searched for his parents.  He did not find anyone from his village.  They were dead, everyone agreed, and though he did not believe it for several months, he had little else to occupy his mind, and too soon he accepted the truth. There were no miraculous escapes, no easy miracles.  There was nothing funny or uplifting, no blackly operatic metaphors.  He did not hide jewels to trade for favors or share his food with sickly children, and once they were liberated, he did not want to remember any of it.

He doesn’t want to now, but at this point there’s no choice.  They’re ready for him.  The blonde is finished, and the man with the headset leads him to her chair, still warm from her.  A sound man snakes a wire up through the front of his shirt, chilly against his skin, as the hostess thanks him for being on the show.  She has so much make-up on that her face is divided into zones of color, a living Mondrian.

“I’m so honored to meet you.  Your book is absolutely marvelous, truly heartbreaking.”

He thanks her, nodding like a professor while the soundman fiddles with his lapel.  “Can we get a level?” a voice calls Godlike from the ceiling.

“Say something,” the soundman orders.

“Hello,” the Novel of the Holocaust says. “Can you hear me?”

“That’s fine,” the ceiling replies.

“Thirty seconds,” the man with the headset says.

The Novel of the Holocaust’s escort stands offstage by the door with her copy, giving him a thumbs-up.

“I’m going to introduce you and the book and then I’ll ask you a few questions,” the hostess says.  “Don’t worry, it’ll be over before you know it.”

He thinks of London again, his computer waiting on the table, the kitchen empty, the post piling up.  How quiet it must be, how still.  Why does this seem ideal to him, the best way to spend his days?

In real life, everyone he knew as a child died. The soldiers came with their boats and took everyone away and killed them one by one, and only he survived. That is the secret of the Novel of the Holocaust, one he has told nobody, and never will, not now, not ever (oh, but don’t they know?).  In the Novel of the Holocaust, the people he loves live forever.  For that lie, he is being made famous.

“Five, four,” the man with the headset says, and finishes the countdown with his fingers.

“We’re back,” the hostess says, leaning toward the camera, and introduces him, telling the country he’s written a luminous, important book about the darkest tragedy of our time which Oprah Winfrey has just chosen for her book club, and that he’s flown in directly from London, England just to be on today’s show.  She turns to him, connects with his eyes, and he can’t help but picture his mother, her hand on his cheek.  What would she think?

“Thank you so much for visiting with us this morning.”

“Thank you,” the Novel of the Holocaust says. “I’m glad to be here.”

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