The Story of a Life by Aharon Appelfeld<br></br> Badenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld, trs Dalya Bilu

A nightmare disguised as a comic opera
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Appelfeld has long drawn upon this horrifying, almost unbelievable, childhood in his fiction. His celebrated novel Badenheim 1939, for example, starts on a spring afternoon as holidaymakers "gathered in the café and devoured pink ice cream". An impresario is planning an arts festival. Yet despite "the brightly coloured baggage" and delicious pastries, the back-biting and flirtations, something is not quite right. Why does an inspector from the Sanitation Department suddenly arrive at the pharmacy "with orders to carry out an inspection"? Why is the charming Austrian spa town being slowly cut off from the outside world? And why do all the guests seem to be Jews?

Blind to what is happening to them, desperately clinging to every scrap of hope and normality, they are slowly overwhelmed by their terrible fate - and eventually "sucked in" to "four filthy freight cars". Written with an irony that is almost sadistic, the novel, as Gabriel Josipovici suggests in his introduction to the new Penguin Modern Classics edition, reads like "a nightmare in the guise of a comic marionette opera". There are even moments when one wants to shout out to the characters: "Look what's behind you!"

Appelfeld's memoir, The Story of a Life, is as subtle and oblique as his novels. It starts with the most fragmentary of early memories: his mother calling out "Strawberries!"; his grandmother often using the word "presumably"; his grandfather's rustic little synagogue; jam-making, Gypsy musicians and endless summer days in the Carpathian mountains... It ends with an extended tribute to his "years of coffee and cigarettes" at the faction-riven New Life Club, "established in 1950 by Holocaust survivors from Galicia and Bukovina", which clearly became something of a home from home. Of romances, wife and children we learn precisely nothing.

Cruelty and terror were ever-present during Appelfeld's war years, but he reveals them in sharp evocative vignettes rather than a linear narrative. The Nazi-controlled ghetto, he notes, was a place where "children and madmen were friends". Asylums had been closed down and their former inmates sat in the park, joined in the games, wandered the streets, "smiling aimlessly" but with "more than a trace of gloating", as if they had finally proved wrong those who believed in a sane world. People who helped persecuted Jews emerge from the darkness like benign giants in a fairy tale and then disappear again.

After the struggle for survival came the struggle to become a writer. The noisy, sloganeering Israel of the early 1950s was not very congenial to someone who had grown up with a deep "mistrust of words". It was also full of pressures to forget the past. At first Appelfeld tried to produce fiction which drew on his new life: "I was a farmer working in the Judean hills, a kibbutz member, a fighter in the Palmach, a watchman guarding an orchard - anything but what I really was." The decisive step forward came when he realised that his true source of inspiration lay in "the silence that had enfolded me during the war".

Appelfeld was recently, and deservedly, shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. He hates the label "Holocaust writer" and argues that it is not subject matter that is important in literature but whether a writer is "faithful to himself - to his voice and his rhythm". He does, of course, have an utterly extraordinary story to tell. But his real achievement is to have found a "voice" for it as scrupulous, as humane and as lovable as Primo Levi's.