Book Review

Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander

Photo on 01-07-2013 at 17.22 #3

Hope: A Tragedy is a dark, funny novel. Hilarious, yet also quite serious, it is the narrative of the mental and physical decline of Solomon Kugel, a 30/40-something Jewish man who moves with his wife, infant son and dying mother out of the Big Smoke and into a Big House in the country. And then, pretty quickly, finds Anne Frank living in the attic…

Anne secretly managed to survive the Holocaust, but remained in hiding largely for marketing purposes. She has been holed up for sixty plus years trying to write her second book. As she repeatedly points out – 32 million sales for a debut gives a writer a lot to live up to.

So, this is the basic premise of the novel – a neurotic salesman tries to hide from his family the in-house existence of a famously dead woman. Classic farce. Hilarity ensues, naturally, but so too do extended sections questioning the nature of persecution, the importance of freedom, selfhood, the destructive power of hope (Solomon’s therapist repeatedly tells him that “Hitler was the biggest optimist the world has ever seen”), selfishness, historical rights to property, the value of a person being entirely quantifiable by understanding how much money they can create…

The above may make the novel sound dry, preachy, self-important, but this isn’t the case at all. Auslander’s irreverent treatment of socially touchy subjects are justified by a) a direct acknowledgement of the potential for accusations of “poor taste”, and b) by the book being genuinely very funny. I laughed over and over again, there are big, dark laughs right through until the very end. The last line is a joke. The end of the penultimate chapter (including the Epilogue, last chapter if not doing so) includes a gag in the midst of tragedy that made me howl with laughter in a public place. Auslander is witty. His prose is funny. And he pokes fun at the volumes of guilt thrown up by the Holocaust in a way that feels insightful and very much not mean-spirited. It is, if it’s an attack on anything, an attack on people claiming grief, claiming suffering, claiming shame, claiming responsibility… Trying to make something very impersonal, very personal. And Anne Frank, frequently contrasted with Solomon’s ailing, also elderly, mother, represents the true personal. She has suffered, she has been through awful things… But all she wants is the repetition of her literary success. She doesn’t want to dwell on the past. She wants to look to the future.

And Solomon, instructed to abandon hope, too guilt-ridden to evict Anne Frank, terrified by a spate of local arsons, his marriage wobbly, slowly and steadily collapses. The reader is neither glad nor disappointed to see this… He suffers, too, but he is not a survivor. “I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in Auschwitz”, he tells himself more than once, which is evidenced by the best comic set piece in the book, a flashback to a teenage trip to Sachsenhausen with his mother. Grief tourism, I suppose, gets quite a mauling too.

Hope: A Tragedy is funny, it’s clever, and if it sounds like you’ll like it you probably will. A good read.

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