January 25, 2012

Hope: A Tragedy: A Novel: A Review

Because you're Jewish, she said, and you feel guilty for not suffering atrocities. 
So says Anne Frank to Solomon Kugel in Hope: A Tragedy, a novel by Shalom Auslander, and when I read that line, I laughed.

A book about the Holocaust isn't funny. A tragedy isn't funny. But life, even when it's tragic, can be funny. It can also be pitiful, absurd, surprising, thought-provoking and bizarre. And, yes, sad too. Tragic.

All of those words can be used to describe Auslander's novelWhile reading, I laughed and cried and got angry. I didn't throw the book, though, like I did at the end of Atonement, because when this book ended, it ended exactly how it needed to, perfectly.

So what is Hope: A Tragedy? 

Hope: A Tragedy
Shalom Auslander
Riverhead Hardcover
June 12, 2012
304 Pages
It's part dark comedy and part fantasy/altered reality: Anne Frank survived the Holocaust, but appears in the small-town attic of Solomon Kugel, a Jewish man who needed a fresh start and fled Brooklyn with his wife, young child, and terminally ill mother.

Sound bizarre? Now let's add some layers.

Kugel is neurotic, obsesses about dying and what his last words might someday be, and can't seem to kick out the ancient, decrepit Anne Frank from his attic.

Kugel's mother wasn't a victim of the Holocaust; she wasn't even born during the Holocaust. But she thinks she was in a camp during the Holocaust, and spends her life blaming "the bastards" for all that ails her.  When teaching her then eight-year-old son about Buchenwald, she points to pictures in a book, pictures of mass graves and emaciated prisoners.
That's your uncle, she would say.
That's your grandfather's sister.
That's your cousin's father.
What's that? Kugel asked, pointing to the lamp shade she had placed beside him on the bed.
That, she said with a sigh. That's your grandfather.
Then she buried her face in her hands and wept.
The lamp was actually made in Taiwan. But that scene somehow made me laugh my face off, even though a year and a half ago, this happened.

The protagonists are caricatures, no doubt. Hilarious, frustrating, annoying, quirky caricatures. They're fun to read, but fun in the way dark comedies like Election are fun to watch. As I read Hope, I often found myself curled up, pretzel-like, my toes pulled in, my typical pose of discomfort.

Because...really. Anne Frank? Alive after all these years, and still living in someone's attic? It's just so weird! Anne Frank wouldn't say that! I thought, more than once. I know! I've read her diary a gazillion times. Really? Are you KIDDING me, Mr. Auslander? 

And the thing is, he is kidding me. The whole book, on some level, is one big inside joke. "Kugel" means "noodle" in Yiddish - not a bad joke, if you happen to know Yiddish. I felt like I got the humor because I am Jewish, and I have access to the shared culture and...ahem...guilt of which Auslander writes. Kugel is trapped by guilt, and I think I understand.

At least I know the stereotype.

But this is a book about breaking free. Of stereotypes, of family, of your own dysfunctional history, which can trap you like a jail cell. And it's only when Kugel can't break free that the tragedy of the story appears, and this is when I, as a reader, stopped laughing. My heart broke a little.

Because this is that kind of book. Serious ideas hidden beneath the absurd, so that by the time you turn the last page, you sort of forget what was so funny in the first place. Because that kind of guilt, that kind of inability to step out from the shadow of your past -- it's kind of tragic.

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