No One is Here Except All Of Us
by Ramona Ausubel (Riverhead Books, $26.95, 328 pages)
In “On Becoming a Novelist,” one of his commentaries on the craft of writing, the novelist and teacher John Gardner wrote that it’s the job of the fiction writer to immerse her reader in a “vivid and continuous dream.” By that demanding standard, Ramona Ausubel’s first novel –an engrossing fable set in a tiny Romanian village whose inhabitants devise an imaginative plan to evade capture by the Nazis—is an unqualified success.
Like too many of the Jewish people throughout history, Lena, the adolescent daughter of a cabbage picker and the novel’s principal narrator, along with her 100 or so fellow residents of Zalischik, experience life as a “parenthesis between catastrophes.”
One day in 1939, in the midst of a drenching rain that seems to be the predominant feature of their village’s weather, a naked woman (the “stranger” as she’s known throughout the balance of the novel), whose town has been laid waste by the Nazis, washes up on the bank of the Dniester River. She persuades the villagers that they might escape her own town’s fate by creating the world anew, as if to remove themselves from the stream of history.
“When there is nothing left to do, and there is nowhere else to go, the world begins again,” she tells them, as she becomes the repository of the villagers’ prayers, their hopes and fears.
In deceptively simple prose, Lena describes this lovely, if ultimately doomed, effort to forge a new world. “We had refused to give up hope,” she recalls, “and though we all knew that no incarnation of the world had ever been safe for us, no matter how beautifully God had tried to build it, we allowed ourselves to believe in this one.”
In this virgin world, for one thing, she’s given over by her parents to a childless couple, her Uncle Hersh and Aunt Kayla, who treat her as they would a newborn, while understanding, with regret, that her childhood will be dramatically abbreviated. Lena marries Igor, the banker’s son, but he’s kidnapped and spirited away to Italy, where he spends most of the war in the custody of a benevolent jailer.
Though it’s grounded in a world that becomes tragically real for its characters, Ausubel imbues the story with a sense of the magical that’s utterly convincing.
When cruel reality intrudes, Lena flees on foot with her 4-year-old son, Solomon, and a newborn boy. Ausubel invests their painful search for a safe haven with drama and pathos. The choice Lena must make at its conclusion is devastating. Still, there’s a beauty that attends her trek, illustrated in descriptive passages that reveal how nature’s splendor can persist when even the ugliest human behavior rules the world:
“Had the lands outside our borders zipped ahead of us or slipped behind? What assembled itself along our path offered little evidence either way. Short, soft-needled pines, weeds, a bloomless crocus. Endless rolls of wheat, planted by knobbled human hands. A thousand worlds’ worth of sky, and the singular sun coming to give us our turn at daytime. Light poured over fields and the way ahead of us was open and long.”
Drawing on a deep store of literary sources – from the creation narrative of Genesis to the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer – and echoing the tales of some of her young contemporaries like Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything is Illuminated) or Obreht (The Tiger’s Wife), Ausubel skillfully weaves all of her material into a fully original tapestry. Small touches, like identifying her characters by their occupation or social status – the healer, the butcher, the widow – instead of by name, help underscore the novel’s timeless feel.
At its deepest level, Ausubel’s novel is a story about the ineradicable power of stories. “Someday, your children will ask what happened,” Lena tells her daughter Chaya, “and you will tell a new version, and this way, the story will keep living. The truth is in the telling.” In an interview with Teá Obreht, Ausubel acknowledged that the project that culminated in this novel “started out as a desire to record the family stories while my grandmother was still alive and well.”
She understands, through the voice of her creation Lena, that with the end of the last Holocaust survivors’ lives fast approaching, the need to preserve their stories becomes ever more urgent. “And let there be someone, somewhere, to tell his story. Our story,” one character yearns with his dying breath.
No One is Here Except All of Us is a strong link in what we can hope will be an endless chain of stories that endures as long as there are humans to tell them.
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