A Matter of Survival

October, Eight O'Clock

by Norman Manea, translated by Cornelia Golna and Anselm Hollo and Mara Soceanu Vamos and Max Bleyleben and Marguerite Dorian and Elliott B. Urdang
Grove Weidenfeld, 216 pp., $18.95

Norman Manea
Norman Manea; drawing by David Levine

Late one Friday: a little boy waits by the window in an unnamed, desolate place. A phantom, “a shadow, withered and gloomy,” appears out of the “smoky steppes.” It is the boy’s mother walking hurriedly, stumbling, bent under a sack heavy with potatoes, beans, prunes, and other scraps of food she earns knitting in houses of peasants whose language she does not understand. The father’s work—we are not told what it is—pays only a quarter of a loaf of bread a day. If it weren’t for the mother—believing “that we would survive if we held fast to anything that might save us”—they would have “faded very rapidly, right at the beginning.” Only this time, in addition to the food which she lays out as always on the floor in six piles, one for each day of the week to come, she has brought in her sack something miraculous. It is a sweater of many colors, like Joseph’s coat, knitted of yarn ends scavenged in those alien huts. The sweater is bulky. Avidly, the boy imagines its warmth. The colors sparkle,

as if the magician who would save us wanted to demonstrate to us what he could do. The night enveloped us in smoke, cold, and darkness; we heard nothing but explosions, screams, the barks of the guards, crows, and frogs. We had long ago forgotten such glitter.

Who can this object be for? The mother, to keep her from freezing as she trudges across the steppes? The boy? No, he thinks it must be for the father, “he deserved it more than anybody else, since he had lost all hope long ago.” But in fact the sweater is for Mara, the only occupant of the hut the boy names. That is because “she had ended up among us by mistake…. The little girl had nothing to do with the curse on us; she was innocent…. Caught up in the catastrophe, mixed up with us and taken away, she had been brought as far as this.” So they “loved her excessively,” thinking that “she must return alive at all costs.”

So begins “The Sweater,” the first in the important and beautiful collection of stories by Norman Manea entitled October, Eight O’Clock. From the known facts of Mr. Manea’s life, one may infer that the nameless place is a concentration camp, somewhere in Transnistria, a land across the border which then divided Romania from Ukraine; the time is World War II; and the little boy, his family, and the other prisoners in the camp (other than “innocent” Mara, soon to die of typhus) are Romanian Jews deported by the Nazis. But none of these words—Romania, Nazi, German, Jew, the War, typhus—are used, except that once some other boys call the narrator a “kike.”

Years pass. One does not know how many. A later story is called “The Partition.” The boy narrator—who…

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