Aharon Appelfeld was born in Czernovitz, Bukovina—the northernmost tip of Romania—in 1932. According to his biographical note, “In the Nazi sweep east, his mother was killed and he was deported to the labor camp at Transnistria, from which he soon escaped. He was eight years old. For the next three years he wandered the forests. Some time in 1944 he was picked up by the Red Army, served in field kitchens in the Ukraine, and thence made his way to Italy. He reached Palestine in 1946.” In other words, he is a man without a childhood, like the hero of Kozinski’s The Painted Bird. He had, instead, a particularly stern version of what is sometimes called “a European education,” which has more to do with good and evil and survival than with the Latin and algebra his narrator sweats over while the world disintegrates around him.
In The Age of Wonders Appelfeld creates the childhood he never had: comfortable, intellectual, and strategically displaced a few hundred miles west of Bukovina. The narrator’s father is an established Austrian writer—novelist, essayist, fervent admirer of Kafka and friend of Zweig, Schnitzler, and Max Brod. He and his wife and Bruno, their only child, live not too far from Vienna, not too far from Prague, and he hurries between the two capitals as his successful literary career requires. The family is Jewish upper class, more or less assimilated. When philandering Uncle Salo gets drunk at Bruno’s birthday party he holds forth about their distinguished relatives: “he counted the musicians, painters, and writers, the converts and the international speculators.” Note those converts; they are Jews whose Jewishness is marginal to their lives, a quirk of ancestry that has no bearing on their cultured agnosticism. Like Proust’s pained, sophisticated tightrope walkers, they are Western Europeans to whom Yiddish is as remote and barbaric as Urdu.
But the time is the late 1930s and their world is changing. The change, however, is seen through the eyes of a twelve-year-old narrator who is concerned with his parents and his sensations, not with politics. History intrudes only obliquely, as a sudden strangeness, an inconvenience. When the book opens Bruno and his mother are returning home from a lonely, romantic summer holiday in the deep country: “all that simple splendor, consisting of no more than black bread, fresh milk, and apples in an old basket.” They share their first-class compartment on the Vienna express with a beautiful young woman who the child assumes is a baroness, a paralyzed boy in a wheelchair, a man “who looked like a diplomat.” In the middle of the night the train makes an unscheduled stop at an old sawmill far from any station:
Suddenly a clear voice broke into the emptiness: express train number 422 begged the passengers’ pardon for the inconvenience. Due to the special circumstances, the security forces requested all foreign passengers and all Austrian passengers who were not Christians by birth, to register at …
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