Published in Germany in 1962, this difficult, neglected Holocaust novel is the first work by Adler (1910–88) to be translated into English.
A secular Jew from Prague, a camp survivor who wrote in German, the author refused to be categorized in his 26 books, which included fiction, poetry, philosophy and history. The same bold unconventionality is evident in this unusual novel, which begins with roundups in the fictional town of Stupart, Germany. Messengers deliver a printed message: “Thou shalt not dwell among us!” The arrested people, for whom everything is now “forbidden,” are taken on trains to Leitenberg, a way station, before being shipped to Ruhenthal—modeled on the slave community of Theresienstadt, where Adler spent two and a half years, according to translator Filkins’s excellent introduction. Their trajectory is obscured and muddied by narrative shifts, time loops, feints, euphemisms, contradictions and ventures into the surreal. Irony is pervasive. There are no references to Jews or Nazis. Instead there are the powerful, the powerless and the bystanders, all caught up in this “epidemic of mental illness.” The occasional use of words like crematorium and extermination startles like a gunshot. Intermittently discernible through the fog of mass murder is the Lustig family. Leopold Lustig, a 75-year-old doctor, is driven out of Stupart with his wife Caroline, sister-in-law Ida and grown children Zerlina and Paul. All are sketchily characterized—after all, they are “ghosts,” more numbers than names. Leopold dies from starvation. Zerlina, by now a hybrid rabbit/woman, is allowed an impassioned swan song before being consumed by flames (or people, take your pick). Paul is the only survivor. In the final third, the novel settles into an orderly progression with a consistent viewpoint: Paul’s. His efforts to get help for the sick survivors are dismissed by the American liberators, acerbically portrayed by Adler. Paul’s one minor triumph is to get his name back, on new ID.
Oblique, extraordinarily ambitious attempt to articulate the unspeakable.