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Shalom Auslander: Hope: A Tragedy

I’m the last person in the world who ever thought I’d write a Holocaust book. I was raised on it so much and I’m sick of it. But write it he did. This is certainly not your average Holocaust book. I hated Anne Frank when I started. But, by he end, he likes Anne Frank. Not the Anne Frank of history but the new Anne Frank he has created who is, as he puts it, kind of cool: a shit-stirrer, a troublemaker, not some sad little victim. But the novel is also about hope, as the title tells us. There’s that thing where a character has to have a fatal flaw and I thought it’d be funny if it wasn’t booze or gambling or adultery but was something positive, such as hope. And poor Solomon Kugel has both hope and Anne Frank.

Solomon Kugel is a forty year old man living in Stockton. Nothing happens in Stockton nor had it ever done. He lives in an old farmhouse with his wife Brianna (Bree) and their three year old son, Jonah. They had moved away from the city as Jonah had been ill and they wanted to move away from the filth and germs of the city. They had bought the old farmhouse, despite the fact that it smelled and was noisy. Solomon had had it cleaned before they moved in but to no avail. Eve, their real estate agent, told them it was authentic and authentic meant smells and noises. If they wanted the sanitised version, without noise and smells and protected from the country they would have to buy a fake farmhouse, which would cost them ten times as much. They could only afford the real thing. Solomon works as a salesman for a company selling green products and he has done very well as he really believes in the products, the only way to sell things, he feels. But there is a recession and things are not going too well. They had intended to rent out two of the rooms to help with the mortgage. They had rented out one room to a Mr Rosner but when Solomon learns that his mother is very ill and has not got long to go, he moves her into the other room, to Bree’s disgust. She shows no signs of dying. Mrs. Kugel makes much of being a Holocaust victim, screaming every morning, hiding bits of bread around the house and warning of another holocaust. However, she was born in Brooklyn in 1945, the fifth generation of her family to be born in the US and, while some of her distant cousins may well have been Holocaust victims, neither she nor any of immediate family were at any risk from the Nazis.

At the start of the book, Solomon is lying in bed in the early hours, listening to a sort of scrabbling noise. He is worried about arson, as there is an arsonist at loose who is setting fire to local farmhouses. As far as he can determine the noise, which is coming from the attic, is either mice or the arsonist. He gets up to investigate and climbs up into the attic. Initially, he sees nothing but the boxes he had put there when they moved in. Then, to his surprise, he sees in the corner of the attic what appear to be the body of a very old woman. He approaches and she opens an eye. Not only is she alive but she has a computer next to her and she stinks to high heaven. When he asks who she is and what she is doing there, she informs him that she is Anne Frank and she is writing a novel. His initial reaction is to call the police and have her thrown out but he realises that it would not look good for Anne Frank to have been sheltered by a Nazi’s son for ten years and then be thrown out by a Jew. So his life suddenly takes a new turn as he has, as a lodger, a foul-mouthed, aggressive, hungry, smelly Anne Frank. Initially he does not tell Bree or his mother but, eventually, they find out. Bree, who is also Jewish, wants her thrown out. Solomon had thought his mother would also want her thrown out as being a rival for her Holocaust misery but she does not. Solomon’s problems are compounded when he finds out that the previous owners were well aware of Anne Frank’s presence in the attic and were very happy when a Jewish family decided to buy the house.

The rest of the book is Solomon’s struggles with Anne Frank, with Bree, with his mother, with Mr Rosner, with Eve and with Wilbur Messerschmidt Jr and Sr, the previous owner and his son. Auslander plays it strictly for laughs, mocking Solomon and his fears and mocking Professor Jove, Solomon’s psychiatrist, who says hope is man’s worst enemy. Above all, he mocks those, like Mrs. Kugel, who obsess about the Holocaust and see Nazis everywhere, instead of getting on with living. It is highly politically incorrect but the tough Anne Frank, determined to go on living and write her novel (we do not know what it is about) comes out as a fascinating character, completely at odds with the mild and demure Anne Frank of the diary. It is nice to know that the tradition of the Jewish comic novel is alive and well and, with Auslander, in good hands.

Publishing history

First published 2012 by Riverhead