Prolific author Appelfeld once again delivers with a novel of great sensitivity, finely attuned to the difficulties of responding to post-Holocaust living.
The sleeping man of the title is the narrator, Erwin (later renamed Aharon), who grew up in the Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Europe until World War II threw his survival into question (all based on facts from the author’s life). The novel opens at the end of the war, after Erwin has emerged from a cellar where he's been hiding out for two years. He drifts to Naples, bereft of family and finding in himself a weariness he cannot shake. He and some other young men are separated from the refugee camp and given military training under the tutelage of Ephraim, a charismatic leader planning to lead his cadre into the conflict in Palestine that will end up creating Israel. Not only do the men get military training, but they also learn Hebrew, for Ephraim claims that Hebrew will help bond them by “[attaching] the language to [their] bodies.” Erwin grows stronger but still feels an almost overpowering need for sleep, and this allows him the freedom to reconnect to his past through long, vivid dreams of his mother and father. Eventually, he’s wounded in action in Palestine and confined to bed. During his slow recuperation he develops the goal of becoming a writer, a profession his father had aspired to but never achieved. To this end, Erwin spends his time copying verses from the Hebrew Bible, which informs both his literary sensibility and his prose style.
Appelfeld’s style is never flashy, but the plainness of his writing gives post-Holocaust events both starkness and power.