Jew or Nazi? A father's double identity

New Fiction

November 20, 2005|By DONNA RIFKIND | DONNA RIFKIND,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Not Me

Michael Lavigne

Random House / 320 pages

The premise of Lavigne's debut novel is nothing short of brilliant. Michael Rosenheim, a stand-up comedian in his 40s, grew up with a father who survived the Holocaust to become a pillar of the New Jersey Jewish community, a fervent supporter of Israel, and a champion of Jewish causes around the world. Now, as the old man is dying of Alzheimer's in a Florida nursing home, Michael finds a box of diaries revealing that in fact his father was not Heshel Rosenheim but Heinrich Mueller, a Nazi accountant at the death camp Majdanek who, in the final weeks of the war, pretended to be Jewish, starving and tattooing himself in order to be rescued as a survivor.

Stunned by his father's masquerade, Michael is unable to corroborate the diaries' allegations: His mother is dead and his father disappears deeper every day into the fog of Alzheimer's. As the novel shifts back and forth between the diaries and Michael's horrified re-evaluations, it builds into a gripping meditation about the fluidity of identity. Avoiding every gimmicky pitfall, Lavigne's tale has poignancy, real philosophical depth, and a thrilling momentum.

The Penelopiad

Margaret Atwood

Canongate / 216 pages

Atwood's 17th work of fiction is a gem. Part of an international series in which writers retell their favorite myths, The Penelopiad subverts Homer's Odyssey by spinning the story from the perspective of Odysseus' faithful wife. Alternating with Penelope's voice are those of her 12 young maids, who were hanged for disloyalty when Odysseus returned from his 20-year journey. Atwood has long been haunted by Homer's brief account of the maids' demise - "For a little while their feet twitched, but not for very long" - and she makes sure that Penelope, in this new account, is haunted as well.

It all sounds quite grim, but Atwood's feminist re-mythologizing flaunts an acid wit and a generous dose of lyricism. The maids communicate as a chorus through song and dance, expressing outrage with a vaudevillian panache, while Penelope cultivates a campy, faux-naive sensibility worthy of the most desperate of housewives. In Atwood's imagination, Penelope and her handmaids are remarkably complex: They are simultaneously ancient and modern, lighthearted and grief-stricken, disenfranchised and powerful.

Where Three Roads Meet: Novellas

John Barth

Houghton Mifflin / 176 pages

Veteran experimentalist (and Marylander) Barth revisits some themes from his earliest novels here, most notably the love triangles in The Floating Opera (1956) and The End of the Road (1958).

The number three is key in this triptych of novellas. "Tell Me" is the story of "the Three Freds," Alfred, Wilfred and Winifred, who teach and study literature, play jazz, and embark on a three-way love affair on a Maryland college campus in the 1950s. "I've Been Told" offers some jazzy improvisational riffs on the myth of the wandering hero and reads like a combination of Laurence Sterne and The Phantom Tollbooth. "As I Was Saying" is a Nabokovian gush of wordplay about three sisters who worked as prostitutes during college while providing inspiration for an ingenious young novelist.

Barth's postmodern winking and nudging is relentless throughout all three tales. At one point, he asks: "Who wouldn't rather read a straight-on-story-story ... instead of yet another peekaboo story-about-storying?" No argument there.

Stalemate

Icchokas Meras; translated by Jonas Zdanys

Other Press / 168 pages

Lithuanian writer Meras' novel was first published in English in 1980 and is being reissued. Born in 1934 and currently living in Israel, Meras was hidden by a peasant family during World War II while his family perished. Stalemate, like much of Meras' other fiction, takes place during the war, this time in the Vilna ghetto, where a Nazi commandant challenges a 17-year-old chess prodigy named Isaac Lipman to a fateful game. If Isaac loses, all the children in the ghetto will be sent to the death camp, while Isaac will be allowed to live. If Isaac wins, the children will live, but he will die. Isaac's only hope is for the game to end in a draw.

As he plays, the loves of his brief life flash before him: his girlfriend, Esther; his best friend, Janek; his brothers and sisters, all dead now; and his sorrowing father, Abraham. The artfulness and clarity of Meras' writing turns a simple parable about dignity and cruelty into a searingly convincing drama.

Shorts: Stories

Alberto Fuguet; translated by Ezra E. Fitz

Rayo/HarperCollins / 336 pages

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