Austrian Jews in a crumbling world; The Age of Wonders, by Aharon Appelfeld. Translated by Dalya Bilu. Boston: David R. Godine. 270 pp. $12.95.
One year ago Aharon Appelfeld's novel ''Badenheim 1939'' was published in the United States, his first book to be translated from Hebrew into English. It is a wry, masterfully written gem of a book, focusing on the inhabitants of a middle class Jewish spa in Austria, about to be swallowed whole by World War II. Practically in the maw of the enemy, the guests continue with astonishing civility to nibble pastries, exchange pleasantries, and listen to the tinkling sounds of the orchestra.
In his new novel, ''The Age of Wonders,'' Appelfeld tells another chapter of the same story. It opens with a striking image. The narrator, an adolescent boy, sits with Mother in what appears to be the first-class car on a train heading from the country toward their small town in Austria. A compartment door opens and a girl appears with a tray laden with cheesecakes and coffee. She pauses in the doorway for a very long time ''and then, suddenly as if set in motion by some external command,'' she starts down the aisle serving the passengers.
Except for the narrator, the characters in this novel behave much like the girl on the train, as they go about their lives in this eerie period before the end--even when, as Father eventually does, they go off the tracks.
It is a time of confusion and dislocation in prewar provincial Austria. No one seems to understand what is going on, and a disturbing restlessness pervades the lives of Mother, Father, and their various relatives and friends, nearly all of them middle-class Jews.
The family takes vacations in the country, where Father works frantically on his proofs and manuscripts. He is a writer of renown, whose reputation is plummeting because his work appears to exhibit an unhealthy un-Austrian parasitism. But there is no more peace in the country, green and overripe with late summer, than at home in their small village. Nor does the constant socializing of the adults give much solace. On these occasions, which ring tinny with a nameless dread, Appelfeld is at his evocative and ironic best.
The adults talk endlessly, and often obliquely, about Jews. Over coffee and the everpresent pastries they make snide references to their Jewishness, which is becoming alarmingly relevant politically.
Ironically it is Father's literary reputation that brings the narrator back years later, in Book Two. He's received a couple of letters of inquiry about his father's work and decides to visit the small Austrian village, almost empty of Jews. Now the age his Father was when he died, he is revealed to us, in the third-person narrative, as Bruno A.
''The Age of Wonders'' is written in the same singsong cadence of Appelfeld's earlier novel. Like ''Badenheim 1939'' it unfolds with at first faint, but soon jangling, premonitions of destruction, which seem all the more striking thanks to the characters' dreamlike refusal to hear them. If it is not as structurally perfect as ''Badenheim,'' lurching occasionally rather than gliding seamlessly to the end, it also delves deeper. Appelfeld gets closer, in this work, to the Jews on the fringes of Austrian society with their confused self-hatred and their stubborn abiding faith in the healing powers of culture.
In his attempt to portray an essentially unchanged Austria after the war, Appelfeld is more ambitious and also, I believe, less successful. Bruno's final act of vengeance, meant to redeem the wrongs of the past and especially the cowardice of his Father, does not strike me as a credible resolution worthy of this novel. But these are minor quibbles in the face of a work that evokes with clarity and a masterfully light hand a painful period in European history. Appelfeld himself escaped from a labor camp at the age of eight, to wander the forests for three years. One can only wonder at the quiet grace of this accomplished novelist.