Solomon Kugel is morbidly obsessed with death: his own, and that of those he loves, including his wife Bree and his only son Jonah. He spends his idle hours writing down possible last words in a notebook, and contemplating the undignified and senseless extinctions that await him around every corner.
His outlook is not helped by his therapist, Professor Jove, who is convinced that hope is the cause of all human suffering and works hard to extinguish it; nor by his brother-in-law, the unsubtly named evolutionary biologist Pinkus Stephenor — a professional optimist whose latest book is You’ve Got To Admit It’s Getting Better, A Little Better All The Time. (He is a best-seller; Jove can’t get his book published.)
As Hope: A Tragedy opens, Kugel, Bree, Jonah and his moribund old mother have moved to a converted farmhouse in Stockton — a town attractive precisely because nothing ever happened there. History has passed it by. It feels safe.
But then their new home turns out to have a strange smell. A scratching noise can be heard through the vents. Rats? Or, worse, the serial arsonist who has been burning down farmhouses like this one all round the area? When Kugel climbs into the attic to investigate, he finds neither a nest of rats nor a clanking pipe, but an unsavoury old lady pecking away at a typewriter. He asks who she is, and she tells him she’s Anne Frank. Their first conversation ends badly. He announces he’s going to call the police and stomps off:
Kugel stopped at the head of the attic stairs.
And let me tell you something else, he said.
She continued to type, paying him no attention.
I don’t know who you are, he said, or how you got up here. But I’ll tell you what I do know: I know Anne Frank died in Auschwitz. And I know that she died along with many others, some of whom were my relatives. And I know that making light of that, by claiming to be Anne Frank, not only is not funny and abhorrent but it also insults the memory of millions of victims of Nazi brutality.
The old woman stopped typing and turned to him, fixing that hideous yellow eye upon his.
It was Bergen-Belsen, jackass, she said.
Kugel continued to glare at her, even as he felt a flush of shame colour his face. He turned and began climbing down the stairs.
And as for the relatives you lost in the Holocaust? she continued.
Kugel stopped and looked at her, and when she did, she yanked up her right shirtsleeve, revealing the fading blue-black concentration camp numbers tattooed on the inside of her pale forearm.
Blow me, said Anne Frank.
If that passage makes you yelp with laughter, as it did me, you’ll enjoy Hope: A Tragedy immoderately. It will strike many people as being in bad taste, and a good few as being in appalling taste. But that — for others — is right where the funny is. The bad taste isn’t simple levity, moreover, so much as an Oedipal revolt against good taste. For Kugel — and, by implication, for Auslander — there is an awful oppression in the idea that successive generations of Jewry must be defined by the Holocaust; a sense that the monolithic solemnity that surrounds it can be a sort of trap.
Kugel’s gaga old mother was never in or anywhere near the Holocaust, but fantasises that she was. She insists to Kugel that a lampshade is his grandfather (it’s marked on the reverse ‘Made in Taiwan’) and, having read somewhere that survivors squirrel away food, stuffs bits of bread all round the house. Frank, meanwhile, who’s the real thing, is a piece of marginalia: nobody wants a living Anne Frank. She’s deluded in her own fashion: convinced her diary sold 32 million copies because of her prose, not because of her supposed death.
The book’s title, Professor Jove’s therapeutic pessimism, and the cherished gloom of Solomon’s mother — her noisy conviction that at any moment They (‘Who?’ ‘What does it matter?’) will kick in the door and herd the Jews into the ovens — all suggest that the deep theme here is hope. Its larger concern, though, strikes that somewhat at a slant: it is the burden of the past. How can Kugel kick Anne Frank out of his attic? He pictures the headline: ‘Jew Drops Dime On Holocaust Survivor’. (His predecessor in the house, German, pictured the headline: ‘Nazis Strike Again. Local Man Makes It Six Million And One’). How, with all this guilt and all this fear, is a Solomon Kugel supposed to live his life?
On the Fourth of July, Kugel looks at the patriotic displays — among them images of the Twin Towers with the injunction ‘Never Forget’ — and thinks: why not?
What’s the harm in forgetting? What does remembering do? Kugel had read that the war in the Balkans was referred to as the War of the Grandmothers; that after 50 years of peace, it was the grandmothers who reminded their offspring to hate each other, the grandmothers who reminded them of past atrocities, of indignities long gone. Never forget! shouted the grandmothers. So their grandchildren remembered, and their grandchildren died.
Having established his themes, Auslander plays narrow but note-perfect variations on them — the note in question being something between Don DeLillo and South Park. Every page brings something appalling, something funny, something appallingly funny.