Zelitch’s superb second outing (after The Confession of Jack Straw, 1991) retells the Old Testament story of Ruth through the saga of two women bound together by their shared experience of Hungary under the Nazis and of Israel after WWII.
Nora Csongradi, who tells the tangled story, remains in Budapest throughout the 1930s, despite the urging of her beloved cousin Bela that she join him in Palestine, whence he had emigrated to a kibbutz. Both Nora’s husband, engineering student and mathematics teacher Janos Gratz, and their headstrong son Gabor (a gifted, temperamental musician) are frustrated and, to differing degrees, struggle to survive in their country’s volatile political climate. When her losses become unendurable, the embittered Nora—finally—emigrates to Palestine, in search of Bela. She’s accompanied by the eponymous Louisa, the German music student whom son Gabor had married and whose inexplicably firm devotion to the unloving Nora underscores the degree to which both women ultimately become displaced persons (“Here . . . [Louisa] was the daughter of a cursed nation, far from home, clinging to her mother-in-law and taking on her people and her God”). In a seamless interweaving of observation, memory, and imagination, Nora recalls in rich detail her own childhood, marriage, and retreat from the burdens that Janos insistently shoulders; reconstructs the history of Gabor’s troubled union with Louisa and his self-destructive impulses (perhaps related to his mother’s emotional coolness); and wryly traces the process of assimilation by which Louisa’s dream of redemption, and her own of reunion, are ironically realized. Though the aforementioned Book of Ruth is the novel’s specific inspiration, Zelitch deepens its pathos still further by linking the image of enlightenment and peace that Bela has promised and Nora has sought in “the Holy Land” with the cautionary biblical tale of the prophet and wanderer Jonah.
A mature and absorbing story of sacrifice, illusion, and resignation, and an important contribution to the literature of Holocaust and Exodus.