Israeli Novel of Ideas Overpowers Story

“Foiglman” by Aharon Megged. Translated by Marganit
Weinberger-Rotman. (Toby Press, $19.95).

Can a work of fiction be important without being successful?
If so, it would look pretty much like “Foiglman,” by the distinguished Israeli
author, Aharon Megged.

“Foiglman” was originally published in Israel in 1988 and is
being issued here for the first time in English by Toby Press, a
Connecticut-based firm with an active editorial office in Jerusalem that has
been busily acquiring backlists of leading Israeli writers.

Megged’s book is a novel of ideas in which ideas completely
overpower the novel itself. True, they are ideas of the utmost gravity, and
they are given unusually thoughtful and provocative treatment here. If the
fictional framework of Megged’s book were handled as magnificently, in fact,
this would have been a staggering work of art.

At the center of the novel is Zvi Arbel, a 60-ish professor
of European history and the author of “The Great Betrayal,” a study of a 1648 massacre
of Polish Jews that many historians view as analogous to the Nazi genocide. Zvi
lives comfortably in his hometown of Tel Aviv and teaches at the university,
while his wife, Nora, works as a biologist. Their grown son, Yoav, is employed
by the army and lives nearby with his wife and young daughter.

Trouble arrives one day in the form of a fawning fan letter.
Out of the blue, an obscure Yiddish poet named Shmuel Foiglman sends Zvi a
volume of his poems that contains a lavish dedication “to the very important
author of ‘The Great Betrayal,’ who … penetrated to the crux of the awesome
tragedy of the murdered Jewish people, the ashes of whose 6 million are
scattered over the earth of Europe.”

With little interest in poetry and only a spotty command of
Yiddish, Zvi is perplexed by this gift from a total stranger. Yet something
about the book — which contains mostly lamentations by a man who clearly lived
through the Holocaust — elicits sympathy from Zvi.

The two men strike up a correspondence, followed by a series
of meetings in both Tel Aviv and Paris. Against the wishes of Zvi’s
increasingly irritated wife, he offers to arrange for a translation of
Foiglman’s book into Hebrew and, eventually, for Foiglman to move to Israel for

Over time, Zvi learns pieces of Foiglman’s past, from his
childhood in Zamosc, Poland, to the 1942 deportation of the town’s Jews,
whereupon Foiglman and his twin brother fled to the barn of a Polish peasant,
who agreed to hide them for a high ransom, then turned them over to the Germans
two weeks later.

“Thus Shmuel Foiglman,” Megged writes, “witnessed first hand
‘The Great Betrayal.'”

Later, the brothers were sent to Majdanek and from there to
various labor camps, surviving somehow until the end of the war, when they wandered,
barely alive, through a shattered Europe.

Though he now expects that here in Israel both he and his
poetry will at last find a nurturing home, Foiglman is doomed to
disappointment. There is little interest in Yiddish in Israel at all, where
Hebrew reigns supreme. Foiglman’s hopes that the Yiddish language might rise
again out of the European destruction, that something might be preserved from
that savage annihilation, are dashed.

After Zvi himself puts up the money to translate Foiglman’s
book, it is all but ignored by the Israeli literati.

“Sometimes at night,” Foiglman confesses to Zvi, “I wake up
from a terrible nightmare in which I’m shouting, ‘Gevald!’ and nobody
understands my language.”

Meanwhile, as Zvi’s friendship with the poet blooms, his
marriage withers. At first merely irritated by Foiglman, Nora becomes jealous,
then angry and finally, after Zvi refuses to cut off his association, she
begins a tumultuous affair with a younger man.

Finally, after months of unbearable agitation, she commits
suicide. Four months later, Foiglman becomes ill and dies, leaving Zvi doubly
haunted by sorrow and guilt.

If these domestic betrayals seem trifling when compared to
the massive betrayals of history and language that are the themes of Megged’s
book, their failure to move the reader lies at the bottom of the perhaps
unavoidable pitfall the author has set for himself. The truth is that the
author has succeeded so well in outlining his big ideas — the impossibility of
translating the horror of the Holocaust, the failure of art and faith in the
face of mass murder — that his own novel has become a disappointed testament to
the truths of those ideas.

His characters are simply too flimsy to bear the symbolic
weight he has heaped on them, and it’s difficult to care about Zvi and Nora’s
marital squabbles in the face of Foiglman’s devastating history.

In the end, the reader is left with awe and certainly
compassion for the victims of genocide, but with little in the way of aesthetic
satisfaction . Â

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