My Innocent Absence: Tales from a Nomadic Life, By Miriam Frank

A journey away from death's door

We are not far into the first chapter when we learn the source of this book's title: "My innocent absence from the tangled pyramids of naked men women and children mixed with urine shit blood and vomit in the midst of grisly screams choking gasps invocations to God and a string quartet the children crushed underfoot in the scramble for air... " It is the string quartet in this (uncharacteristically unpunctuated) passage that places it in a concentration camp from which the author, aged three at the time, has escaped to express the residual guilt of the survivor. As she fled occupied France in 1941, first for Oran, then Casablanca, then finally Mexico aboard the Serpa Pinto (a ship that brought numerous intellectuals and artists from Marseilles), Miriam Frank's stage was being reset. From her earliest years, she was to become a global peripatetic.

Frank reviews the period with a fresh eye. This is truly a new story: of how displacements can render an individual a world citizen. From school years in Mexico to medical studies in New Zealand; from early hospital practice in Israel to latterday visits to the US, Frank appears to have acquired local identities much as she did languages, even to relish her chameleon existence.

She relates her parents' hybrid origins: her mother from an assimilated German elite; her father from a poor Orthodox Lithuanian background, each capable of acquiring new jobs in new cultures. This process of self-reinvention led her father into parallel personal lives. And it becomes the more amazing that Frank emerges, if not unscathed, then finally triumphant.

Her career as an anaesthetist carries her professionally forward, and also supports her and her two daughters, as her marriage to a German artist turns sour. London becomes her lasting home, as Frank finds her way out of medicine and into literature and working with refugee writers.

It is modish to talk of "inner journeys". Here it is in outer journeys that the words excel: colourful images of markets from Mexico's Xochimilco to Rome's Campo di Fiori; descriptions of characters drawn from their personal and public lives. The thread of quest and peregrination unites a life in which family and home may once have been an absent presence but from which, ultimately, Frank did not remain in absentia.