A Holocaust survivor wends a crooked path through life in this wry, absurdist saga.
Returning to his Romanian hometown of Oradea at the end of World War II, 18-year-old David Mahler struggles to develop a healthy amnesia. He has a lot to forget: stints at Auschwitz–where his mother and brother died–and three other concentration camps, as well as memories of persecution and betrayal at the hands of his government and neighbors. The new Communist regime is less hostile to Jews like him, but his maverick streak puts him permanently at odds with its irrational dogmatism. When David graduates from medical school, his postings take him on a tour of despotic, dysfunctional Stalinist Romania–battling lice in a backward province, scrounging up supplies for a destitute prison infirmary, vetting the health of peasants drafted into gulag labor. (A commissar helpfully instructs him to pass everyone he examines, no matter how sickly.) To console himself, he has a string of affairs with voracious women, duly reciprocated by his wife. Escaping with his family to Dallas, where he takes up psychiatry, David’s existence becomes less wretched but no less bizarre. He meets a gallery of American grotesques, including a man who threatens to kill his wife because she doesn’t have orgasms, loses his son to drugs, petty crime and American anomie, and eventually endures a post-9/11 anthrax attack. The episodic narrative often feels like a patchwork of disjointed vignettes linked together by David’s mordant, ruminative voice; they range in tone from harrowing concentration-camp scenes to shaggy-dog stories to a Fellini-esque childhood encounter with a midget who has a dancing-bear act. The author’s first language is evidently not English, so David’s voice has an idiosyncratic quality to it, sometimes delivering lines like â€œEven the algorithm of copulation throughout evolution is the result of coincidental coitus.” Still, amidst the gonzo goings-on, Liebermann conveys an atmospheric melancholy.
An eccentric tale, sometimes moving but never boring.