“A Slim Masterpiece:” Joshua Ferris reviews Book of Aron

A wonderful review in the Guardian: “The Book of Aron is his best novel yet, a short and moving masterpiece.” Here it is in full:

Jim Shepard has always been preoccupied by history. His long-admired collections of short stories come with multiple pages of acknowledgments that read like the bibliographies of an intellectually promiscuous research student. His fictional subjects are often real-life figures who feature in various human fiascos spanning the centuries. It might be tempting to dismiss history’s distant follies as the function of a bygone and benighted era, but Shepard’s short fictions remind us that all eras are benighted because humanity is inherently flawed, reckless and blinkered.

Shepard’s new novel, The Book of Aron, set in the Warsaw ghetto, is another historical fiction, but a departure of sorts. Where Shepard’s short fiction often features the bit players and hapless sidemen of disaster, The Book of Aron brings to life an indisputably great man, the child advocate Janusz Korczak, who ran an orphanage and followed his charges to Treblinka.

But The Book of Aron is Aron’s book, the story of a misbegotten boy born in Poland at a disastrous time. His antics exasperate his father, who beats him. His mother, loving but harried, is confounded by his behaviour. If that behaviour is mostly that of your run-of-the-mill five-year-old menace, nobody in the Rozycki household needs another headache. The trouble greater than Aron is the general squalor of life among Jews in the Polish countryside on the brink of the second world war. Sickness, toil, penury, bad teeth, disaster and death rule their lives long before the Nazis even make an appearance.

Aron’s early efforts to be a better person are touching. “I lectured myself on walks,” he tells us. “I made lists of ways I could improve.” He takes to books. He loves his mother. In the quiet hours of night, they form a special bond that is Aron’s only tether to humanity.

Things for the Rozyckis don’t improve when Aron’s father gets a job at his cousin’s factory, and they move to Warsaw. The Germans invade Poland soon after, and all Jews are shunted into the ghetto. Families double up in small apartments and sleep in hallways. Aron’s father is beaten mercilessly by German soldiers. His brothers are shipped off to labour camps. Aron runs the streets with a patchwork gang, stealing and smuggling what they can. He falls in with a member of the Jewish police who turns him into an ambivalent informant.

Shepard’s fidelity to the historical record is impressive, but what makes The Book of Aron a work of art is his obedience to the boy’s restricted perspective. To render Aron believably, Shepard had not only to sublimate copious research; he had to channel the consciousness and patterns of speech of a Jewish-Polish boy from the 1930s while divesting himself of most of the tools and tactics a typical writer uses to tell a story: elevated diction, reader-directed introspection, knowing metaphor. Shepard did something similar in his excellent, upsetting 2005 novel Project X, but that book’s protagonist was a contemporary American boy. This is the more remarkable act of ventriloquism, and it serves more than one thematic purpose. What better way to rebuke the Nazi piety that all Jewish life was utterly worthless than by bringing to full and empathetic life a perfect nobody of a kid, historically irrelevant as anything but a number, one of a countless horde? Aron’s perspective also mirrors that of the ghetto: no one knows what’s coming next, and the Jews are like credulous children under the Nazis’ indiscriminate lash. You’ve never experienced the unfolding atrocities in quite this way before, and this helps to make them anew.

There are bleak ironies and dark comic exchanges throughout The Book of Aron. But while these start off in a familiar Shepard mode – one character wielding sarcasm against another to reveal shortcomings of character – before the overwhelming colossus of Nazi oppression the humour has no choice but to shift focus. Considerable laughter emerges out of the terrible circumstances that surround Aron and his family, as the only defence the Jews of Warsaw have against patented insanity, and it rings convincingly with the syntax and speech patterns of aphoristic Yiddish wit. This is just one example of how the book slowly expands to become something great.

That expansion kicks into full force in the final third of the book, when Aron, stripped of family, home and sustenance, and freezing to death on the streets of the ghetto, is rescued by Korczak. Korczak is no cheery saint with box office appeal. “We’re walking tombstones,” he says to his assistant, Madame Stefa, whose only happiness is Korczak, but whose passion he cannot reciprocate. “I exist not to be loved,” he tells her, “but to act.” These are the words of a monomaniacal and self-martyring machine. But he is indisputably good. Despite illness and rejection, Korczak makes trip after tireless trip into the wider world in search of money and food for the children under his care. He soon takes to Aron, who, in his presence, no longer needs to make lists on how to improve. Their friendship, based on insomnia as much as likemindedness, prompts Aron to act selflessly in a way his mother would not have dared dream. If it’s ultimately in vain, there are consolations. We watch as character transcends its mean surroundings, and a once-questionable boy becomes a loving human being.

Narrative art about the Holocaust runs the risk of indulging our collective yearning. Please, writer; please, film-maker: save the characters we love. Alchemise the evil. Reassure us. The Book of Aron offers no reassurance. The fate of history is sealed. The book’s final pages are shattering. But by reclaiming an insignificant voice and deploying it to observe a great man, Shepard turns hell into a testament of love and sacrifice. The Book of Aron is his best novel yet, a short and moving masterpiece.

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