SFGate: Book of Aron “a transcendent fictional experience”

Yet another amazing review:

There are as many ways to give voice to the Holocaust as there are literary genres. The naturalism of Elie Wiesel’s “Night” follows a boy — seen in retrospect though his adult eyes — from Hungary to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. In David Grossman’s surrealistic “See Under: Love,” an orphan boy resorts to inventive fantasies in an effort to come to terms with the horror. Art Speigelman’s “Maus” ventures into eerie comic-book territory, in a graphic novel portraying Nazis as cats toying with Jewish mice. All of these attempts to put the unspeakable into words have their merits.

Jim Shepard’s superb “The Book of Aron,” his seventh novel, set in the Warsaw ghetto, is a work of straight-ahead naturalism, but it is nothing like Wiesel’s pioneering 1960 novel. For one thing, it is a far better work of fiction.

In its time, “Night” seemed daring. It was bleak and uncompromising, reporting to those who had not known, or had refused to let themselves know, just how horrific Nazi atrocity could be. So Wiesel’s story of a boy and his father in the concentration camps spelled out everything. See how ruthless the capos could be. See how heartless some prisoners could be to fellow prisoners.

Upon re-reading, the novel can seem hopelessly didactic. “There was no longer any question of wealth, of social distinction,” Wiesel writes of the prisoners. His youthful narrator comes face-to-face with “the notorious Dr. Mengele,” but it’s only we readers, not the boy, who are aware of the doctor’s notoriety for heinous medical experiments.

By contrast, Shepard tells his story solely from the limited perspective of Aron Rozycki, his scrappy ragamuffin of a fighter. Aron knows only what he sees in front of him. All else is rumor. Are the Germans advancing on Russia? Will Allied bombing save the city? What he sees is starvation, illness and death, all framed in a landscape of grab-what-you-can opportunism with a pinch of selflessness and heroism.

The novel begins with this striking opening: “My mother and father named me Aron, but my father said they should have named me What Have You Done, and my uncle told everyone they should have called me What Were You Thinking.”

It’s hard not to sympathize with a boy whose father belittles him and whose peasant family believes if you have a toothache, the remedy is to slap the other side of your face. Aron’s father sells animal hides, and his mother washes other people’s floors. When the two are together, they quarrel, often about how to feed their four children. When father learns of a possible factory job in the capital, they leave their village and head to Warsaw. They have, it turns out, substituted one kind of misery for one infinitely worse.

The book’s enormous power comes from its stylistic restraint. Shepard describes the gradual shutting down of life support — the jamming of extended families and strangers into small apartments, the desperation for food, the spread of typhus, the beatings and shootings — in compact, chiseled sentences. The novel’s dignity flows from its utter lack of pretension.

Shepard’s matter-of-fact prose depicts a gradual tightening of the noose: one restriction on Jews after another, erection of walls around the ghetto, snatching away Jewish men for “work details.”

In this interim before wholesale deportation to the camps, 13-year-old Aron and his confederates harden themselves into a band of thieves and smugglers, swapping stolen goods for food and coal. Their enemies are legion: rival gangs, police (German, Polish and Jewish) and the Gestapo.

Inevitably, moral dilemmas abound. When Aron’s mother reminds him that stealing is always wrong, he retorts that starving is always wrong. At one point, Aron declares that he thinks only of himself, even if we readers disagree. An officer in the Jewish police tries to persuade Aron to save his skin by joining the force.

If this man is the book’s Satan, Dr. Janusz Korczak is the book’s hero. A physician who had risen to fame with a popular radio show for children, he now operates an orphanage for Jewish children. When Aron’s path crosses with “The Old Doctor,” he will discover that Korczak is no savior and that he is more than a sinner.

Korczak was, in fact, a real-life historical figure, a respected champion of children, whom he considered “the world’s oldest proletariat.” Aron is Shepard’s subtly crafted fictional creation, a boy forced to face wrenching grown-up choices.

Though Shepard has grounded his novel in numerous historical sources, he elevates “The Book of Aron” into a transcendent fictional experience. Without preaching, it reminds us of the infinite varieties of good and evil, and of the many paradoxical places in between.

Dan Cryer is author of “Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church.” E-mail: books@sfchronicle.com

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