Review: Hope: A Tragedy
Outrageous, dangerous ... hilarious
Shalom Auslander's surname means "foreigner" in German, or "outsider". And that is certainly what he seems - a Jewish outsider alienated even from other Jews.
In his 2008 memoir, Foreskin's Lament, he described how he was damaged by his strictly Orthodox upbringing in Monsey, New York. Now, in his debut novel, he brings his outsider perspective to bear on the Holocaust, to examine whether anything more than the deepest despair is possible 70 years after the murder of the six million.
Auslander deploys a bleakly ironic and, at times, shocking humour that challenges the Jewish obsession with past misery. As his hero, Solomon Kugel, says: "Never forgetting is not the same as never shutting up about it."
This, of course, is a dangerous game. Many people won't get the joke, or see the serious intent behind the humour. They will be offended by the fun poked at figures such as Elie Wiesel and Alan Dershowitz, and insulted by irreverent references to gas chambers.
Most of all, they will be appalled by the resurrection as an ill-tempered, manipulative crone of the one Holocaust victim who most symbolises Jewish suffering. And they would be right to be appalled if the book wasn't funny - but it is. Laugh-out-loud funny.
Kugel is a thirtysomething salesman who decides to "begin again" after his sickly young son, Jonah, recovers from a serious illness. He moves with Jonah and wife Bree from Brooklyn to the rural safety of upstate New York.
But his attempt to escape the past is doomed, not least because his mother comes too. She has been traumatised by her experience as a survivor; except that experience - deportation, cattle trucks, Auschwitz, the lot- is a complete fiction, invented to compensate for her failed marriage to Kugel's father.
The closest she got was a sightseeing visit to Sachsenhausen, accompanied by an unwell Kugel. His frequent trips to the toilet meant they had less time to pose for photos at the ovens. "You ruined the whole concentration camp for me," she complained.
Worse, Kugel has bought a 200-year-old converted barn where, hiding in the attic, is the aforementioned crone, an unwanted reminder of genocide.
Kugel spends a lot of time wondering whether he should evict her or not - he imagines the potential newspaper headlines: "Six million plus one", "Jew acts like Nazi". He spends even more time debating the hope vs despair question, to the detriment of his marriage, his career and, eventually, his sanity.
His therapist, Professor Jove, is firmly in the despair camp - it is the only rational response to a world that resembles, if not actually is, hell. By contrast, Kugel's sister comforts herself with the thought that everything happens for a reason, while for Bree, the answer is simple - of course kick out the crone, we don't want our son blighted by all that affliction.
By the end, with Kugel's life having fallen apart, hope does indeed appear to be a delusion, one we are condemned to believe in over and over again, if only because the alternative is unbearable.
Hope: A Tragedy is a funny, serious book that will make some people angry, and a lot more people laugh. At least, one can only hope so.
Shalom Auslander will talk about 'Hope: A Tragedy' at Jewish Book Week on February 26 at 12.30pm. Alan Montague is the JC's arts editor