To the Land of the Cattails, by Aharon Appelfeld. Translated by Jeffrey M. Green. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 148 pp. $14.95. Witnesses, victims, survivors, and historians have written poignantly and forcefully of the Holocaust unleashed by the Nazis in World War II. For the poet or novelist, however, it is a more problematic subject. How, on the one hand, to avoid merely exploiting its horrors? How, on the other, not to trivialize the magnitude of the tragedy? Tragedy itself seems an outlook too classical, too measured, too grand a concept to accommodate the waking nightmare in which people conspired to deprive other people, not only of their lives, but of the simplest recognition of their human identity, the sense of individual dignity that tragedy affirms.
For a sense of the true enormity of what happened, the reader turns to nonfiction history, like Lucy Dawidowicz's ``The War Against Jews'' or Martin Gilbert's still more wrenching ``The Holocaust,'' with its hundreds of pages of eyewitness testimony.
But artists also bear witness and testify. And while aestheticism may be far from relevant in this case, the question of how to tell any story always involves questions of art in a broader sense, particularly if the teller is also an artist. Elie Wiesel, winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, has drawn on his own experience of the camps in novels like ``Night'' and ``Gates of the Forest.''
Herman Wouk, who was not there, still felt the need to bear witness - in equally chilling detail - in his novel ``War and Remembrance.''
The Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld, whose mother was killed by the Nazis and who at the age of eight was sent to a concentration camp himself (from which he escaped), uses the medium of fiction, not to portray life and death within the camps, but to evoke the strange and treacherous calm before the deluge. The foreboding, dreamlike atmosphere of his earlier novels also permeates ``To the Land of the Cattails,'' his fifth book to be translated from Hebrew into English.
Appelfeld now lives in Jerusalem. He was born in 1932 in Czernovitz, Bukovina (now in the Soviet Union). One cannot help imagining that his birthplace bore some resemblance to the ``land of the cattails,'' with its riparian countryside of reeds, trees, and marshes, the home toward which the heroine of this novel wends her way.
The novel begins in the summer of 1938, a year fraught with danger and alarms of war. But these perils seem very far off as we follow Toni, a 34-year-old Jewish woman, and her adolescent son Rudi on a journey from Vienna to the land of her birth.
Absorbed by her private dream of homecoming, Toni travels eastward through Ruthenia like a somnambulist. We see her through the eyes of her son, who loves her, fears for her, is by turns touched and exasperated by her behavior, cares for her, mysteriously loses her, and desperately seeks her. Rudi is the son of Toni's brief marriage to a Viennese gentile. He ``looks'' non-Jewish, like his father, but is Jewish by virtue of her maternity. His demeanor strikes people as ``non-Jewish,'' but he feels a strong allegiance to his mother. She belatedly and confusedly, upon leaving cosmopolitan Vienna for the rural world of her parents, attempts to explain ``Jewishness'' to her son. In view of what is to happen, attempts at self-definition will make very little difference.
The dreamlike ambience of Appelfeld's fiction is a means of re-creating the stillness before the storm. But this quality of stillness has further significance. The life that was lived at an ordinary pace before the catastrophe takes on the appearance of stillness when viewed retrospectively, through the fire and smoke of the Holocaust. And so, the characters seem to move as if in a dream: the novelists's dream and our dream. Their words and actions take on a deceptive simplicity. There seems a lack of connection between action and consequence. Ordinary solid objects - an inn, a tablecloth, a cup of coffee - are portrayed as if strangely insubstantial, yet filled with an ineffable value. The lives of these people are a dream not only because they do not realize what is about to happen to them, but also because their reality seems dreamlike to us, we readers who see their helplessness as they cannot and who recognize in it the helplessness dreamers feel in nightmares.