Children live the details of a father's war

October 23, 1994|By Jeffrey M. Landaw

The unnamed narrator of Carl Friedman's first novel is 8 years old, but she's already learning that like Marlowe's Mephistopheles, her father carries hell with him wherever he goes.

She and her two brothers are growing up in the Netherlands around 1961; the trial of Adolf Eichmann is part of the background. Dutch life appears characteristically tidy and comfortable, but Ms. Friedman suggests, without saying a word, that the country's calm surface is a triumph of benign repression.

Ms. Friedman's narrator keeps hearing in school about Dutch sacrifice in the Eighty Years' War for independence from Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries; World War II is never mentioned. Those who know how the Dutch suffered in that war, especially in its last winter -- as Ms. Friedman's original readers presumably would -- are likely to surmise that they still feel it too painful to mention.

But the psychological mechanisms that work for most of the Dutch don't help the narrator's father, a Holocaust survivor who can neither repress his memories nor keep them from tainting his children's lives.

He can't drive past a forest without assessing it as a possible hide-out. Asked for a story, he has a camp guard dog ask Little Red Riding Hood where she's going; she replies that she's visiting her grandmother, who's "in the hospital block with typhus." As the narrator says, "Camp is not so much a place as a condition. . . . We've had chicken pox and German measles. . . . But we've never had camp."

There must be a strong autobiographical strain in the book: Ms. Friedman, a poet, translator and journalist born in 1952, is a survivor's daughter. And she's done a remarkable job of resisting the temptations that come to autobiographical novelists.

Ms. Friedman could have given her character all the best lines; she didn't. She could have claimed insights no child her age could have had; she didn't. And she could have flaunted her superiority to her obsessed family and uncomprehending neighbors; she didn't.

Instead, we learn detail by detail what the father's war was like: hiding in the woods, betrayal in a petty quarrel, slave labor and starvation, German guards who kill out of boredom and a kapo -- a prisoner overseer -- who "made us pay for every last thing that had ever been done to him, for all his mistakes, all his humiliations, all his failures." The father kills this kapo during an air raid, and when his older son tries to console him for showing apparent remorse, he snaps: "Sorry? The only reason I want to bring him back to life is to murder him again. . . . The only thing I regret is that I didn't make him suffer in mortal fear long enough."

The child's flat, matter-of-fact perspective on all this -- Ms. Friedman does not serve up big emotional moments or draw grand conclusions -- is what makes the book so effective. Asked by her teacher what she wants to be when she grows up, the girl replies, "Invisible, so the SS won't catch me." In art class, she draws a prisoner being hanged as others, including her father, are forced to watch. Her brothers practice drinking muddy rainwater and sticking their feet in the refrigerator to experience frostbite.

Forbidden to join the Brownies because her father remembers ** Dutch Boy Scouts fraternizing with Hitler Youth before the war, she asks a friend what the Brownies do. "Movies, tracking, things like that," the friend says. "And camp." "Camp?" the girl repeats, wide-eyed, and for a moment we're wide-eyed too.

Jewish readers in particular may notice that this isn't the familiar world of Eastern Europe. There's no widespread poverty, no conflict between intense piety and the secular messianisms of socialism, communism and Zionism. And perhaps most important, there's no sense that the Jewish community is marked off by the hostility of the Gentiles around it.

The male characters have Jewish, or vaguely Jewish, names -- the father is Ephraim, the boys are Max and Simon -- but they differ from their neighbors only in that they don't go to church. The girl tells her friend her father has "fallen out" with God, but when Max, the older boy, asks how he can still believe in him, the father replies: "God didn't shout Sieg Heil! when Adolf Hitler came to power. . . . I'd rather have a God I can't understand than no God at all. So I'll have to put up with him, for better or worse."

If the family has a linchpin, it's Bette, the children's mother, who, we gradually learn, waited out the war for her husband. Without fuss, she tries to keep him on an even keel and to help her children grow up like normal people. It's always dangerous to guess at such things, but if Ms. Friedman has lived as well as she writes, she's won the battle.

In a book this short, one misplaced word would be fatal, and Arnold and Erica Pomerans' English rendition contains no misplaced words. They also seem to have done a creative job of finding an equivalent for an untranslatable title. The book was published in Dutch as Tralievader; a Dutch-speaking diplomat reports that the word Tralie can mean "trellis," "lattice" or "prison bars."

Mr. Landaw is a Sun makeup editor.

Title: "Nightfather"

Author: Carl Friedman; translated from the Dutch by Arnold and Erica Pomerans

Publisher: Persea Books

Length, price: 133 pages, $18.50

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