The late writer spins a survivor’s story into a spiritual journey.
Aharon Appelfeld’s new novel, To the Edge of Sorrow, was written in Hebrew in 2012 and published in January by Schocken Books in an English translation by Stuart Schoffman.
It takes place during World War II, in a part of Romania that is now Ukraine.
Our narrator is a 17-year-old Jewish boy named Edmund, who has escaped the camps and is now a Jewish soldier in the resistance effort. Appelfeld himself grew up around the same time and in the same region. His mother and grandmother were murdered by the Romanian army when he was 9, and he and his father were sent on a forced march to a labor camp.
Appelfeld escaped the camp and wound up disguising his identity and working as a shepherd for Ukranian peasants for three years. Twenty years later, he was reunited with his father, whom he thought had been killed during the war.
On the surface, To the Edge of Sorrow is about war, Judaism, suffering and daily life. Yet, in an original way, none of the plot elements corresponding to these themes — long slogs through swamplands, debates about religion, daily life matters like eating, cooking, dreaming and burying the dead — are represented through literary realism. Instead, there is a kind of spiritual realism, in which roundness of character and texture of history take a backseat to parable, myth and folktale.
In that sense, Appelfeld — who died in 2018 at the age of 85 — has been rightly compared to Franz Kafka.
With 85 short chapters that work in many ways as stand-alone pieces, To the Edge of Sorrow can justly be read as an allegory of the spiritual journey. The novel might be appreciated one or two chapters a time, to drink, in an unhurried way, its intensely imaginative climate.