A quiet, moving and utterly convincing story about the growing love between an aging author and his companion.
Seventy when the novel opens, Ernst is a retired investment adviser who has been married twice. His first wife and their baby daughter were killed by the Nazis, and his second marriage was a mistake whose pain still torments him. At first abrupt, if not downright curmudgeonly, Ernst goes to a cafe in his Jerusalem neighborhood every morning and then spends hours writing. He’s not in robust health, so he hires Irena as a companion to supervise his care. Irena is 36 and has a simple faith far different from the angst that has bedeviled Ernst. As a boy, he rejected Judaism, much to the distress of his father, and joined the Communist Party. Eventually he became a member of the Red Army, a time that he still recalls with fondness due to its clarity: "You know who’s a friend and who’s a foe." Over time, however, he rejected communism and rediscovered the faith of his ancestors. In fact, much of the writing that now preoccupies him involves reminiscences of his devout grandfather in the Carpathian Mountains in Czernowitz (now in Ukraine and, perhaps not so coincidentally, where Appelfeld was born). Although he initially instructs Irena to destroy his manuscripts after his death because he doesn't "want strangers to grope [his] writings," over time he begins to read her excerpts, and she finds in his work a remarkable sensibility, both tender and kind. As Ernst’s health continues to deteriorate, his need to record his memories grows more desperate, and he begins to rely ever more on Irena as an empathetic listener, eventually finding in her presence "the gateway to life."
Appelfeld writes simply but gorgeously about important things, and the translation is particularly graceful and supple.