One woman survives the Holocaust; decades later, another imagines what her life might have been like.
Elsa Weiss survived the Holocaust by obtaining a seat on the “Kastner train”—a train that smuggled more than 1,600 Jews to safety after Rudolf Kastner, a Hungarian Jewish journalist and lawyer, negotiated with Adolf Eichmann. Kastner’s train was real; in this novel by Israeli writer Ben-Naftali—her first to be translated into English—the reality of Elsa Weiss is up for debate. Once she arrives in Israel, Elsa works for decades as an English teacher before stepping off the roof of her apartment building. The novel is narrated by one of her students, who goes unnamed and who makes a project out of understanding Elsa’s life. That’s not easy to do. No one, it seems, knows anything about Elsa. What follows, then, is a work of the narrator’s imagining—a kind of novel within a novel. Why Ben-Naftali chose this framing device isn’t entirely clear, since she doesn't make full use of it. The vast majority of the book is taken up with descriptions of Elsa’s experiences; only occasionally are we reminded that the real Elsa was a cipher, that these descriptions are the narrator’s imaginings. But Ben-Naftali doesn’t fully explore what it might mean to imagine another person’s life or what these fictions illuminate about the narrator herself. Then, too, the narration hovers at a distance, favoring third-person description over dialogue or scenes in the present. The constant exposition makes Elsa into an abstraction and the other characters into less, even, than that.
Ben-Naftali doesn’t make full use of her material, and the result feels more tired than fresh.