An aging couple, survivors of the Warsaw ghetto, revisit Poland after a 40-year absence.
Edelman’s short second novel (War Story, 2001) unspools in telegraphic paragraphs signifying a journey both physical and spiritual for the two protagonists. Jascha, a celebrated author best known for a Holocaust novel, and his wife, Lilka, live in London and, against Jascha’s better judgment, are traveling by train back to Warsaw, where he has been invited to give a reading. Both are torn between their trepidation at returning to a homeland they last saw as escapees from the Warsaw ghetto—where they first met and became lovers—and their desire to recapture the luxury of prewar travel, complete with much consumption of chocolate, cigarettes, vodka, bread and butter. They find their train and the once-opulent Warsaw hotel they check into sadly faded. The reading audience reacts to Jascha’s novel with indignant defensiveness. As they continue to drink, smoke, make love and sleep, Jascha and Lilka confront memories of their existence in the ghetto, many long suppressed. They both benefitted from lucky connections that they later contemplate with guilt. Jascha, a resourceful smuggler, was the right-hand man of the Accountant, the ghetto’s corrupt kingpin, who engineered his escape to the “Other Side” (of the ghetto wall) with forged identity papers. Lilka escaped deportation, and the ghetto, through the intervention of her mother’s Nazi lover. Separated after the war, they encounter each other by chance in London when Lilka translates Jascha’s book. His sudden renown and intractable narcissism almost sever them again, but their marriage endures as a function of mutual fascination, shared history and shared secrets. Edelman skillfully reveals the characters’ deepest misgivings and regrets, as both realize they will never be at home in this world, except—and only sporadically—with each other.
A fine rendering of tormented souls.