Soniah Kamal

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'Islam is not Pakistan's religion; Marriage is'

Monday, January 30, 2012

Shalom Auslander. 'Hope: A Tragedy'. Is it really?

As a child I remember reading Enid Bylton's allegorical novel 'The Land of Far Beyond."  I loved it. At the end of the novel, the main characters are asked what is most important 'Love, Faith, or Hope?' No matter what answer the novel deemed right, for me the answer was always hope. Shalom Auslander would think I was a real fool to vote for hope. But then he would think me a fool had I gone with either love or faith. For the witty Auslander the world seems faithless, loveless and hopeless;  his short story collection Beware of God seemed to caution against love, and his memoir Foreskin's Lament against faith, his debut novel Hope: A Tragedy cautions as well as investigates the precarious nature of hope and why one might precariously cling to it.
"You buy a handgun--for protection, you say-- and drop dead that night from a heart attack. You put locks on your doors. You put bars on your windows. You put gates around your house. The doctor phones" It's cancer, he says. Swimming frantically up to the surface to escape from a menacing shark, you get the bends and drown."

Auslander is nothing if not the king of black humor; it's his saving grace since you better be able to elicit chuckles if you're going to write a novel narrated by a chronic worry wort who finds, of all people, a witch-like Anne Frank hiding in his attic and trying to churn out a bestseller to top her bestseller of bestsellers. Certainly Auslander has no time for sacred cows and pushes every button he possibly can. There are riffs on gas chambers, cattle cars, products made of people, being gravely injured but not yet dead at the top or bottom of a mass grave, a visit to a concentration camp: 'Are there ovens at least? The trip shouldn't be a total waste?'
A while back I attended a talk given by Yann Martel on his novel 'Beatrice and Virgil', a Holocaust allegory, at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta.  The discussion that followed was a bit volatile since many in the audience felt that Martel had stepped on a sacred cow. I wonder what would happen were Auslander speaking at such a venue? Would the audience be just as upset or a little less since Auslander was brought up an orthodox Jew? But who else could 'get away' with making a minor mockery of Anne Frank and what she stands for if not a Jew, and is this fair? (Fairness an expectation I'm sure Auslander would have plenty of things to say about). One could also ask why someone would want to get away with something like that; but then why not-- and Auslander explores in full honesty the implications of 'sacred cows'.
Auslander's prose is crisp and flows very well, as does the plot which hinges on the protagonist coming to terms with hope at different stages of his life. The novel also features a woman who believes she was in the Holocaust and her tale makes for an arresting case of survivor's guilt. I would have liked to know what happens to the wife and son at the end of the novel, but they just disappear, and perhaps their disappearance is intended, perhaps all I'm meant to do is wonder if they survive and hope that they do.


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