Hope: A Tragedy, By Shalom Auslander

The sad woman in the attic

Doug Johnstone
Sunday 26 February 2012 01:00

We all know that the Holocaust is a great source of comedy, right? OK, maybe not, but in the hands of the brilliant US writer Shalom Auslander, it becomes so.

In the strong tradition of Jewish humour, his writing is incredibly sharp, hugely self-deprecating, riddled with insecurities and hang-ups, and often stupendously funny. At times, Hope: A Tragedy, his first novel, reads a little like the kind of film Woody Allen wouldn't dare make anymore – or never had the balls to make in the first place. It is outrageous, sure, and will probably be offensive to some, but beneath the sur- face humour, Auslander also makes some very serious points indeed.

The book opens with our self-hating anti-hero, Solomon Kugel, lying in bed worrying. He has recently moved his young family to a farmhouse in Stockton, a nondescript part of upstate New York, only to discover a local arsonist is burning down farmhouses.

But that concern pales into insignificance when he finds Anne Frank hiding in his attic. A very old and decrepit Anne Frank. It turns out that she didn't die in Belsen but was smuggled out of Europe by guilt-stricken Germans, and has spent the past 65 years cooped up in various lofts, working on a novel.

Of course, having sold 32 million copies of her diary, she's suffering from writers' block. On top of which, her publishers don't particularly want her alive, as her non-death could affect diary sales. And, added to this tricky situation, we have Kugel's elderly mother living in the farmhouse, a woman who claims to be a Holocaust survivor despite being born and raised in New York.

It's Kugel's mother's appropriation of the guilt and anger of Jewish history that is the sharpest angle in Auslander's tale; an intriguing psychology that he probes mercilessly. Towards the end of the book, Anne Frank repeats Kugel's own words back to him: "I'm sick of that Holocaust shit." But for all that Kugel wants to think otherwise, the Holocaust is something he can't help but return to, again and again, having been conditioned since birth to keep picking at the scabs of history.

Auslander previously wrote a fantastic story collection, Beware of God, and a jaw-dropping memoir entitled Foreskin's Lament, but the form of the novel seems to have focused his anger and humour into truly fearsome weapons.

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