Hope: a Tragedy

Hope: a Tragedy
Shalom Auslander
Picador, 208pp, £16.99

“The past is an old armchair in the attic, the present an ominous ticking sound and the future is anybody's guess," James Thurber once observed. But what if the past is not inanimate? What if it's scratching around, making ominous noises from beneath the roof? That's the fate that befalls Solomon Kugel, a hyper-anxious, Jewish salesman who moves his family from Manhattan to a wooden farmhouse in upstate New York, in a town notable only for having been bypassed entirely by history. He's looking for a peaceful life but he's reckoned without the full weight of the 20th century occupying his attic in the hunchbacked form of Anne Frank: ancient, ornery and decidedly alive.

There could hardly be a more high-risk prem­ise. Frank is foul-mouthed, lives off squirrels and shits in the heating ducts. The resulting odour is not exactly palatable but this wildly funny, courageous novel possesses ferociously moral intentions.

The presence of the world's most famous Holocaust victim in his attic isn't Kugel's only problem. An arsonist is targeting local farmhouses, the tenant is complaining about the smell and his wife is livid because his dying mother has taken up residence in the downstairs bedroom. Despite growing up comfortably in Brooklyn, Mrs Kugel the Elder has co-opted the identity of a survivor. She's assem­- bling a family album in which she painstakingly replaces photographs of outings to Coney Island or the Catskills with newspaper cuttings of Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen. When Kugel was a child, she used to terrify him by introducing random inanimate objects - lampshades or bars of soap - as relatives. ("Her name was Ivory?" Kugel asks. To which his mother snaps back: "Well, they're not going to write 'Auschwitz' on it, are they?")

In such troubled circumstances, it isn't surprising that Kugel muses obsessively over what he'd do in the event of genocide. He writes lists of what to pack ("EpiPens, iPod, Zyrtec") and asks co-workers if they'd hide him in their attic ("One said he'd love to but was allergic to dogs"). His therapist is an advocate of pessimism who comes out with statements such as: "Hitler was the most unabashed, doe-eyed optimist of the last 100 years. Have you ever heard of anything as outrageously optimistic as the Final Solution?" Meanwhile, his brother-in-law, Pinkus Stephenor, is an evolutionary biologist convinced that statistics prove humanity is getting kinder by the day.

Shalom Auslander is the author of Foreskin's Lament, an acclaimed, blackly comedic memoir about his upbringing as an Orthodox Jew. In it, he recounts writing "Fuck you" on a piece of paper and pushing it into a crack in the Wailing Wall. As such, he's accustomed to smashing into proprieties. But while there's something undeniably shocking about the spectacle of Frank bitching about Elie Wiesel's sales, Hope isn't offensive for the sake of it. By making Frank such a noxious, prickly presence, he counteracts the disturbing tendency to sentimentalise atrocity, conflating victimhood with the possession of an unblemished character.

The inflaming, literally incendiary question at work here is how to live with the lumber of the past. Is it best to remember or to burn it down and start again with the naive belief that humans might not be capable of destroying entire races? Kugel makes a poignant case for the virtues of amnesia. He longs for a "Forever-Gone for brutalities, atrocities, indignities great and small" and declares of his son that he would die a happy man "if in years to come, somewhere, someday, someone kicked in Jonah's door and Jonah was surprised . . . Let him wonder, raised-eyebrowed and slack-jawed, they kick doors in now? Since when? Hang on, hang on - they're putting people in ovens? You can't be serious. Since when do people put other people in ovens?"

There's something to be said for this approach but I'm not sure it's what Auslander believes. Just as Foreskin's Lament wasn't an atheist's outcry but that of an infuriated believer, so this is not an advocation of denial. Instead, it's an assault on any attempt to make the Holocaust something that can be contained in a scrapbook or a museum. In Auslander's hands, history is animate and terrifying: a dangerous, stinking squatter in the present. It's certainly not palatable and nor should it be. This is a funny book but, by God, it sticks in the throat.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The weaker sex