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Don’t mention the war

10 December 2011

10:00 AM

10 December 2011

10:00 AM

Major/Minor Alba Arikha

Quartet, pp.217, 15

It wasn’t easy being the daughter of the artist Avigdor Arikha. In this memoir, Alba Arikha mixes teenage fury with glimpses of her godfather Samuel Beckett and a fragmented account of her father’s experiences of the Holocaust. Avigdor Arikha and his wife, the poet Anne Atik, surrounded themselves with the intelligentsia of Paris and drove their daughter mad: ‘I resent their purity and knowledge. Their values and morals. My father’s anger. My mother’s goodness.’

Avigdor Arikha was an irascible, dismissive and earnestly didactic father. Alba paid no attention when he tried to teach her about the Sumerians; she would not stay quiet when he discussed art and politics with his friends; when she began improvising on the piano, it was the wrong type of music.

The book is a rapid series of vignettes that move from Paris to Jerusalem to London and New York. Arikha writes in brief, sparse sentences that sometimes border on poetry: ‘Her pain is an open window which has never been fully closed: she needs to grieve in order to feel alive,’ she writes of her grandmother, Pepi. Later on, we hear the details: Pepi’s husband was beaten to death by German soldiers and soon afterwards she was separated from her children for 14 years.

When Arikha has lunch with her father in a café to ask him about the war, he struggles with the rock and roll on the juke box, while she struggles with embarrassment because a boy from school is at a nearby table. Finally, he begins to tell her about his childhood: ‘Time hangs somewhere between his words and the bustle around us. Between the sky above our heads and the untouched salad on my father’s plate’ … The town of Czernowitz in 1941 … My teenage preoccupations.’

Teenage angst set against war crimes: is that in good taste? Arikha tends to keep self-pity out of it, and being the child of a survivor brings its own particular emotions. She describes her father seeing someone who was in the camps with him. He doesn’t stop because, he says, they have nothing in common. ‘ “But you were in the camps together!” I shout. “Isn’t that plenty?” ’

Avigdor shouts back and tells her she’s too young to understand; everyone else tells her not to upset her father:

I feel the anger boil inside me. Everything is about my father. His history sits between us like an intruder who will never leave.

Her parents’ friends also set this book apart from most coming-of-age memoirs. Samuel Beckett comes to dinner and plays the piano with her, and she sends him her short stories and poems. If he likes what he sees, he writes an encouraging letter. Arikha makes a smile here or a question there give a sense of what Beckett was like. Much of the book is more classic teenage stuff: boys, make-up, longing to be prettier and more normal. It’s all done in the same economical style, so mundane moments pass quickly.

Major/Minor is an unusual book. It hovers on the brink of self-indulgence, but just about gets away with it. Anyone who’s ever had a tantrum will recognise the helpless rage that comes with being 13, and her family’s wartime experiences give Arikha’s sparse prose a haunting melancholy.

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