BOOK REVIEW / Under the eyes of the Gorgon: 'Riders Before the Dawn' - Albert H Friedlander: Constable, 18.95 pounds

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SOMETHING has gone terribly wrong with this book. On the face of it we should be in for an exceptional experience. Here is a much-loved and widely respected rabbi of liberal views, a man born in Germany but equally at home in England and America, France and Israel, a man who numbers among his friends many of the most distinguished Jewish and Christian thinkers and writers of our time, exploring a subject that ought to be at the forefront of any thoughtful person's mind as we approach the new millenium: can we ever leave the horrors of the Holocaust behind us without at the same time committing the ethically and psychologically dangerous act of forgetting? How could such a book fail?

Yet fail it does, and that for a number of reasons. To begin with, the tone is all wrong. Take the title: Riders Towards the Dawn is vaguely heroic and romantic, where what is surely needed is something cool and precise (such as Alexander Stille chose for his remarkable study of Jews under Fascism, Benevolence and Betrayal). And then there's the subtitle: 'From ultimate suffering to tempered hope'. What would penultimate suffering be? Can suffering really be graded like that?

Such failures of tone are multiplied in the pages that follow. George Steiner, we are told, is 'arguably one of the greatest thinkers of our time'. 'One of the finest records of shared memory,' we are informed a little later, 'is probably the book and the film' of The Gardens of the Finzi-Continis. 'Since Paul Celan was arguably (sic) one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century,' Friedlander asserts, 'anyone who loves poetry will be shaken and enriched by most of the Celan poems encountered by chance or design.' (I particularly like that 'since'.)

This is slack writing, but not really offensive. I am not so sure though about the following: 'When we stare at Auschwitz, we freeze into statues. Auschwitz, Treblinka, Mauthauser, Buchenwald - Stheno, Euryale, Medusa - the eyes of the Gorgons look at us through the smoke of the chimneys that still travels back and forth through the atmosphere.' Even though the subject is the unthinkableness of what happened in the camps, this is a form of writing that positively encourages non-thought. It never seems to strike Friedlander that if one is going to venture into this minefield good intentions are not enough. One must be very careful and very alert to tone and nuance.

And what of the following? In good liberal fashion Friedlander insists that it is the duty of Jews to criticise Israel, but such criticism, he goes on, 'should be joined with the appreciation and active support of achievements which, in less than 50 years of an existence always threatened by extinction, has brought a Jewish presence into the world where the attainments far outweigh the wrongs which have arisen out of the political situation of our time.' It's that unthinking 'far outweigh' which makes this reader at least feel that the previous remarks only serve to give liberalism a bad name. Try telling a dispossessed Palestinian that the achievements of Israel 'far outweigh' his sufferings. And the next sentence - 'The Palestinians are also a people' - will not, I am afraid, do much to appease him.

Friedlander seems not to have been able to make up his mind whether to write a personal memoir and meditation or to write a compendious account of how others have seen the problem. The glimpses we get into his own life, especially the Berlin years ('Whenever the doorbell rang, my father put on his overcoat and stood at the back door, ready to run away') are both moving and fascinating. Unfortunately too much of the book consists of page-long summaries of the thought of this or that theologian or writer (all, Friedlander makes clear, personally known to him). These are usually followed by a brief encomium. Thus Victor Frankl, we are told, 'is one of the most important persons we have encountered in our search, someone who finds light after darkness and who brings healing and love into the world'. Later we learn that Aharon Appelfeld is 'arguably (sic) among the great writers of Israeli fiction and poetry . . . Dan Pagis is another key writer.'

One longs, in the midst of all this talk of greatest and best and key and important, for a genuine sense of context, such as we find in Ammiel Alkaley's After Jews and Arabs, or Gillian Rose's Judaism and Modernity. These works, angry, haunted, biased, arouse far more hope in the reader than pious platitudes.

Friedlander's message, which is that we should look at the acts of courage and even saintliness which emerged out of the Nazi atrocities rather than be mesmerised by the horrors and brutality of the perpetrators, is an important one. But I wish he had found a better way to put it across.