A Matter of Life and Death

Wartime Lies

by Louis Begley
Knopf, 198 pp., $19.00

Early in this chilling novel about a Jewish boy named Maciek and his aunt Tania, who survive the Nazi years in Poland by acquiring false Aryan papers, the question of the child’s circumcised penis is raised. As the narrator dryly points out, Jewish women could represent themselves as Aryans easily enough, but

with men, there was no cheating, no place for Jewish ruses. Very early in the process would come the simple, logical invitation: If Pan is not a kike, a zidlak, would he please let down his trousers? A thousand excuses if we are wrong.

With his old man’s flabby skin” the boy’s grandfather “might even pass the trousers test if he was careful. It was possible, with surgical glue, to shape and fasten enough skin around the gland to imitate a real uncut foreskin. Grandfather was duly equipped with such glue.” But for the boy, only surgery with skin grafts could achieve the desired effect, an alternative considered by the aunt and the grandparents, and ultimately rejected. For, in addition to the risk of infection and of the graft not taking,

there was the problem of growth. My penis would become longer but the grafted skin would not keep pace. I would have trouble with erections. This last consideration tipped the scales. They decided to leave me as I was.

The passage is typical of the book’s irony and metaphoric proficiency. As the narrative unfolds, we see that “the problem of growth” extends beyond the operation of de-circumcision and is the problem of the book. What happens to a child’s soul when he lives his childhood in constant fear for his life and witnesses atrocities that no child should know of, no less witness? In a prologue, the narrator—who is the adult the child has become, “a man with a nice face and sad eyes, fifty or more winters on his back, living a moderately pleasant life in a tranquil country”—refers to skin that covers another part of the anatomy. The man is “a bookish fellow,” a Latinist who “reveres” the Aeneid because “that is where he first found civil expression for his own shame at being alive, his skin intact and virgin of tattoo, when his kinsmen and almost all the others, so many surely more deserving than he, perished in the conflagration.” Between the images of the tattooed arm and the erect penis Begley has situated his austere moral and psychological fable of survival. Like other contributors to what Lawrence Langer has called the literature of atrocity, Begley writes with a kind of muted and stunned air, as if the words are sticking in his throat. The exquisite soft note of the master writer of the genre, Primo Levi, is sometimes heard in the novel, and Levi’s bitter reflection (so quietly murmured, in The Drowned and the Saved, that it goes by almost unnoticed) that “the worst survived, that is, the fittest; the best all died” has not …

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