A quiet narrative of high expectation and muted desperation from Israeli writer Appelfeld (All Whom I Have Loved, 2007, etc.).
Set in a vaguely pre-war period in the 20th century, the book recounts the journey of a caravan meandering through Eastern Europe and trying to get to Jerusalem, which is continually held out as a promised land of health and healing. As Sruel, one of the de facto leaders of the convoy comments, “Everything is filthy except for Jerusalem.” The eponymous Laish, an adolescent orphan, narrates his story of despair and hope. Appelfeld writes in an unadorned yet forceful style, taking Laish and his companions through a series of adventures that are too subtle to be called harrowing; still, they test the mettle of the Jewish vagabonds involved in the journey. Some of the conflicts involve traders dabbling in shady business deals that bring in money for the continuation of the pilgrimage. One of the original leaders dies, leaving Laish a book in which to record the deaths of others, not exactly a propitious beginning for the journey. Other forces are also at work to pull apart the group—attacks by hostile ethnic subcultures, for example, and rain and plague. Laish is also tempted by the distractions of wine and women, going so far as to steal money from Blind Menachem in an anguished attempt to recover Maya, a prostitute he’d encountered in a city along the way. Eventually the travelers hear rumors of the possibility of taking a ship to Jerusalem, so the few remaining members sell their wagons and horses and go to Galacz to await a ship. There they’re forced to commit one last desperate act to ensure their survival, one that while not overly noticeable in the grand scheme of their journey is nonetheless fraught with pain.
A story that is, paradoxically, low-key and intense.