“ Author: Shalom Auslander / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 27 September 2012 / Genre: Modern & Contemporary Fiction / Publisher: Pan Macmillan / Title: Hope: A Tragedy / ISBN 13: 9781447207665 / ISBN 10: 1447207665 / Alternative EAN: 9781447207658 „
~Why did the Chicken cross the road? Because he was an optimist~
In Shalom Auslander's novel 'Hope: A Tragedy', we are introduced to Solomon Kugel, a man who wants to do the right thing but spends too much time trying to keep everyone happy without realising that he can't possibly ever get it right.
Solomon and his wife Bree were looking for peace and quiet, calm and security when they chose to buy a house in a small town called Stockton, famous because nothing famous ever happened there. Whilst others seek to be at the centre of things, they were looking to be somewhere completely different. We are told that "Like many other newcomers, the Kugels had chosen Stockton because history had not". Solomon is pushing forty and he's a worrier. He lies awake at night worrying about what his last words would be, whether they'll be significant and whether anyone will think to write him down. He's the kind of man who would worry if he had nothing to worry about - I think we all know someone like him.
Solomon also worries about his sickly son, Jonah, and he hopes that their move to the country will be a way to leave behind the evils of the city, the germs and the bugs and the unhealthy things that prey on unsuspecting inhabitants. It could be their new life, a chance to start over, but Bree's unhappy that Solomon's mother has moved in with them. The doctors had said mother would last two weeks but the country seems to have given her a new lease of smelly, moaning, holocaust-revisiting life.
Kugel's life might be bearable with just the problems of a sick child, an annoyed wife and a mother who keeps telling him that his lampshade is made from his grandfather's skin. It might be bearable if the tenant living in their spare room wasn't so constantly annoyed and always complaining. And it certainly would be a lot better if the house didn't smell so dreadful.
~Some sellers just take the lightbulbs or leave the bins full~
When you buy a house you often inherit problems from the old owners - light switches that don't work properly, patches of damp, maybe a neighbour's cat that likes to pee in the garden or mice in the attic. But Kugel has inherited a bigger problem. There's the awful smell and an intermittent tap tap tapping coming from the attic. He goes to investigate, sure that there are mice or other critters up there, expecting to find smelly animal dung in the eaves but he finds rather more than he expected. Up in the attic of his house there is an animal but it's not a rodent. He finds a body, curled up, smelly and dishevelled and thinks someone died up under his roof. No such luck for Kugel, she's alive, she's aggressive, foul-mouthed, demanding and determined to stay. Oh, and it just so happens that she's Anne Frank, the same Anne Frank who was supposed to have died in the Nazi death camp at Bergen-Belsen. So what's she doing in Solomon's attic?
Not too surprisingly Kugel wants Anne out of his home. She makes a lot of noise and she keeps peeing and pooping down his ventilation shaft. The tenant wants to store his stuff in the attic and keeps threatening to move out. Anne has to go but how can Kugel, a Jew born and raised in the USA with mother who won't stop banging on about the Nazis and the death camps (even though she wasn't actually there), possibly throw the most famous victim of ethnic cleansing out on the streets? He's terrified of what people would think, imagining the news headlines screaming "Brutalised by Nazis, tossed out by a Jew".
His wife is angry, his mother's insane, his tenant will leave and they'll not be able to pay the mortgage. He tells us "Whilst there's never a good time to find Anne Frank in your attic, this was a particularly bad time". Poor Solomon.
I don't recall where I heard about this book but it was a few months ago and I popped it on my Amazon wish list. When the title came up as a daily deal recently, I bought it even though I couldn't remember why I'd been interested. Then the Anne Frank storyline came back to mind and I knew I'd have to get on and read this one soon. It's an absolutely fascinating - and totally bizarre - idea for a book and undoubtedly that sort of premise that makes you stop and think....and then think a bit more. What if one of the world's most famous 'victims' was actually a survivor? Would anyone want to know? Would anyone believe her? And wouldn't the 32 million people who'd read her book be really annoyed to discover that the ending wasn't quite what they'd expected? Would her diary have ever been the international smash hit if the ending had been 'and Anne lived happily ever after'? What if the best way to stay alive was to let everyone think you were dead?
It's also an examination of how it is to be Jewish or German in the post-World War II era. Anne tells Kugel she's been "the blessed beneficiary of sixty years of humanity's guilt and remorse". Nobody dares put her out on the street when society is too busy trying to atone for the sin of getting lucky and being born after the Holocaust.
There are some very funny set-pieces and fabulous characters in this. There's the offensive and quite possibly certifiably insane psychiatrist, the dysfunctional Mescherschmidt family who sold Kugel the farmhouse, the aggressive and determined estate agent, Eve, who keeps selling the house and claims not to know why it smells so bad. Kugel would happily strangle his mother and would love to put her in a home but he still goes out to the garden every morning to 'plant' vegetables he's bought at the store so his old mother can crow about her 'green fingers'. His mother is reliving a past that never happened, taking on Anne's history in hiding and in the concentration camp, believing that it all happened to her.
~Very Jewish Humour~
I went through my 'Jewish Writers Phase' about 25 years ago. I know that sounds odd but I went to Israel backpacking and came back with the idea I needed to read lots of books by Jewish writers and I did. I read the sad and serious ones but I also got through a lot of comedies. I did my time, I read my books and I probably got a bit saturated and I moved on and stopped reading them a long time ago. 'Hope: A Tragedy', took me right back to an earlier time, stuffed as it is with tons of clichés, many of them very funny. It's also stuffed with cultural references to people I've either never heard of or of who I am only vaguely aware. This wasn't too much of a problem until I got to the very ending and realised that someone I thought was irrelevant wasn't, and I had to go and look him up, only to discover that it didn't make that much more sense once I did know who Alan Dershowitz was. I didn't NEED to know the cultural references, but just as I get more from a book set in India by knowing a few dozen words of Hindi including a half dozen filthy swearwords, and knowing a lot about the history of the country, I would probably have found this book even funnier if I knew who Auslander was writing about. As it was, I found a lot of the comedy rather dated and predictable but still very funny. The dialogue is sharp and funny but not always easy to follow due to the determined absence of quotation marks (a deplorable affectation in my eyes). The idea of Anne as a stroppy old lady who thinks the world owes her a lot, is very funny and I think a lot of people who read Anne Frank's Diary would see the potential that the real woman could have grown up to be a lot like Auslander's decrepit old attic dweller. There are some super revelations towards the end when we find out how and why Anne came to be in the Kugels' attic and you can't help but find yourself buying into the idea that something like this could happen.
This book is ideal for anyone who likes Jewish humour, who doesn't mind a few sacred cows being well and truly thrashed around the farm yard and who's open to imagining the unimaginable. It won't be for anyone who never read Anne Frank's Diary, has no interest in the Holocaust or hasn't the slightest idea about why survivors and their successors might feel a sense of inherited guilt.