From child to adult, a blocked passage

September 27, 1994|By Anne Whitehouse | Anne Whitehouse,Special to The Sun

In Israeli author David Grossman's acclaimed last novel, "See Under: LOVE," Momik Neuman, a boy growing up in Jerusalem in the 1950s, is witness to his parents' nightmares. Night after night, he hears them screaming in their sleep. Kept in the dark as to the source of their suffering, told only in hushed tones about the "Nazi beast," Momik imagines that a vicious wild animal is lurking in the house and develops complicated strategies to trap him in the cellar.

Mr. Grossman's new novel expands the themes of secrecy, suffering, ignorance and shame to illuminate a universal human condition -- the passage from childhood to maturity. It has been dexterously translated from the Hebrew by Betsy Rosenberg, who also translated "See Under: LOVE." (One only wishes for a glossary for American readers of terms specific to Israeli culture.)

The protagonist, Aron Kleinfeld, another Jerusalem boy, in the 1960s, ceases to grow after the age of 10 1/2 . The novel follows Aron's life episodically for four years. As Aron's peers erupt into adolescence, he remains physically and emotionally a child. Zacy and Gideon, his friends in the shabby housing project where they all live, move on to more serious group pursuits such as scouting and sports, while Aron remains absorbed in such boyhood pranks as his daring Houdini escapes or sneaking into a neighbor's apartment with an illegally acquired passkey.

Like Momik's parents, Aron's, Moshe and Hinda, are unlettered, unreflective, yet well-meaning people. For example, both mothers refuse to have books in the house because they gather dust. Their ignorance isolates them. Refusing to seek medical help, Aron's parents treat their son's condition like a shameful secret that they must surround with a conspiracy of silence.

Exiled from adolescence, Aron remains "free, but . . . an outcast." He cannot help internalizing others' reactions to his size and despising himself for it. At the same time, he discovers that his failure to grow has unavoidably formed his identity: "he knew from the pangs in his heart and the coded communications, the idiom of his most intimate grammar, that this was no temporary delay, it was becoming, God forbid, the thing itself, and just as he had felt chosen somehow before his problem started, now he felt chosen, too, same difference, which gave his disaster a certain dark and twisted logic: it was his disaster, out of which he had been fashioned."

Aron comes to realize "with the instinct of an elderly fourteen-and-a-half year old" that it is not only his own body which is flawed; rather, "having a body is itself a defect." In frightening and compelling scenes, Mr. Grossman emphasizes that the body is a stinking reservoir of decay and corruption as well as a source of unassuageable longings.

In contrast to Aron, his father is a physically imposing man of large appetites and impressive strength. Spontaneous rather than contemplative, the Polish-born Moshe survived the second World War by escaping from a Russian prison camp and living like an animal on the frozen taiga. He is a thwarted nurturer, lavishing care on a sick fig tree, but unable to help his unhappy family. He invariably fails the women who seek to control him. While Aron romanticizes his father's past, he sensitively shrinks in recoil from Moshe's crudeness.

When Aron feels stirrings of love for a girl, the object of his affections is the ethereal Yaeli Kedmi. He discovers that by sharing his feelings with his best friend, Gideon, he improves his image of Yaeli: "Aron too could not help marveling how the words coming out of him not only showed Yaeli as she was but beautified and refined her, transforming her into a vision of who she would shortly become, eliminating a flaw or two. . . "

Soon Gideon, Yaeli and Aron become a threesome, sharing everything and excluding no one, in a relationship founded on trust, idealism and innocence. Mr. Grossman's depiction of this unconventional arrangement is one of the most absorbing aspects of this original novel. Here, underlying the swirling, charged narrative, is a core of quiet perception.

Aron cannot bear how his mother's vulgar warnings sully the purity of his twinned affections for Yaeli and Gideon. The betrayal shatters his hopes and seals his destruction; he can no longer be a child, but he will never be an adult. "The Book of Intimate Grammar" is a painful novel to read, a startling indictment of the "violent and repressed civilization" of the family and of the sexual love that it jealously defends.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer who lives in New York.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Book of Intimate Grammar"

Author: David Grossman; translated from the Hebrew by Betsy Rosenberg

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Length, price: 343 pages, $22

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