04 January 2009

2. The Iron Tracks

The Iron Tracks by Aharon Appelfeld
I read this book in one day (200 pages). This book was a very pleasant surprise for more than one reason. I found it sitting on a shelf at a used book store. I purchased it because of the short bio of the author on the back cover. I had no idea what to expect, but that is half the fun of starting a book. Will it be good? Will it catch my attention? Will I finish this one?
Yes...yes...yes. The book caught my attention right away. I was trying to place the events into a frame of reference that was familiar to me. That was pretty easy because I have spent time in that part of the world. The more I read, the more familiar it became. There was a reason.
First of all, the reason I picked up this book was Appelfeld's bio. I read this and took an interest in what the man would have to say. This man was born in Romania in 1932 and is a Jew. At eight years old he witnessed the murder of his mother by Nazi troops invading his home. They sent he and his father to a concentration camp. He escaped from the camp and lived in the forest for almost three years. He emigrated to Palestine in 1946 (before it was Israel). He was reunited with his father after years of separation.
The book itself is interesting. It is about a Jewish man who was in a concentration camp in Austria. The setting for the book is 40 years after the end of World War II. This man, Erwin, travels the Austrian countryside perpetually. On March 27th of every year he leaves on a train from the station at Wirblbahn. He travels the same route, making the same stops, seeing the same people, every year...year after year. Each stop is no more than a day here or a day there. The entire circuit takes about 50 weeks. Then he starts all over again. The reasons for it are to collect and sell Jewish antiques and to "hunt and kill" the murderer of his parents. Can you imagine traveling the same circuit like that for 40 years?
Along the way we meet Erwin's friends, learn more about his past and who he is. What I found interesting is that I did not think the narrator in the story was really telling the truth. It was like I was listening to a friend tell me the story of his own adventures. People always leave out the hard truths. Leave out the pain and the fear. This narrator spoke like that. Until the very end.
We learned that Erwin's parents were Communist Jews. They had betrayed the Jewish people in favor of communism. Later they all ended up together in a camp and the Jewish people betrayed them also. In the story it was mentioned that the father was Ruthenian and taught his son the Ruthenian language. I figured that was some fictitious place and language made up for the book, but I looked it up after Erwin asked his mother why she did not speak Ukrainian and then said his father was from Lvov (a Ukrainian city).
This gave the book a personal attachment for me. I have been to Ukraine twice. We have adopted two daughters from Ukraine. We have many friends in Ukraine. We have many friends who have adopted children from Ukraine. I have spent time learning about Ukrainian history and culture.
Just this last September I spent time with Ukrainian friends at a Great Patriotic War museum in Kharkiv that was VERY moving. I had been taught all about the allied fight against the Nazis and how the US saved the world. I went to this museum and learned a whole different front existed. I had learned the trivial parts of the battles fought between the Red Army and the Nazis. This was different, and quite fascinating.
Since this book was about the same war, and now was attached to the same country, and was speaking of a culture I now understand a little, the book became more than just some printed words. Borscht is just food. Borscht is more than just food when you help a dear friend, a rural Ukrainian woman, peel the potatoes in her kitchen in a house that doesn't even have hot water and then watch your daughter pluck the chicken's feathers after they went to the back yard and killed one that wasn't laying many eggs. (Was that the world's longest sentence?) This is why this book came to life for me. It was my personal experience wit some things that came up in the text.
So...more about the actual book.:
I like Appelfeld's style in writing this book. What can I call it? Curt? Squished yet descriptive? Maybe compressed is the right word? It seemed like the words in the book were few, but the meaning in them was huge. Exactly the opposite of that wordy Woodpecker book. :-)
I found it interesting that we did not even learn the main character's name until fully one quarter of the way into the book. Even the man's profession is only alluded to until probably half way through the book.
After reflecting on the book a little I think Erwin is afraid. He is still stuck in the concentration camps. He goes through the same motions and does the same things, despite the lack of happiness or joy, and can not make it change. If it changes then life ceases to exist, almost. Like, maybe he will just disappear. His life is empty. He embraces the emptiness, but fails to admit it even to himself.
I found the confrontation with the murderer, Col. Naftigel, to be different. Erwin had really done nothing at all except wander around reflecting and talking until that moment. That town. That chapter. That was a different Erwin, but the same Erwin.
Can I say this is a great book? Probably not great, but definitely good.
Can I say you should read it? That is difficult because I had an emotional attachment to it that you probably would not.
Will I say you should avoid it? Nope. It is a good book and deserves to be read. Even if you don't like it as much as I did, and it is a pretty quick read.
A- - Recommended because I connected with the story

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