Thursday, January 27, 2011

The quiet beauty of Quiet Americans

Last weekend I had the pleasure of reading Erika Dreifus's new short story collection Quiet Americans (Last Light Studio, 2011) a book that is as difficult to type as it is easy to enjoy. At the same time one could call it historical fiction, third person family memoir, autobiographical fiction, contemporary literary fiction, "fact"ion, or holocaust fiction. Certainly the historical nature of Dreifus's book makes it a perfect subject for this blog. But its concerns are not merely fictive or exclusively historical. Like all good fiction what the book finally does is question, examine, and get at the nature of truth itself, which in Dreifus's collections proves to be far more complicated than her characters ever expect. Anyone with an interest in the holocaust and how it led immigrants to this country needs to read this book. Anyone who simply wants to enjoy engaging, relevant, and thoughtful fiction by a subtle practitioner of the craft needs to read it even more.

Dreifus's purpose in Quiet Americans is to show how both in small and large ways the holocaust shaped, and still does shape, generations of Americans, families whose history in this country began because of the terrifying social and political climate inside the Third Reich. As illustrative and disturbing are the well known chronicles of the "final solution"--Elie Wiesel's Night, Olga Lengyel's Five Chimneys, Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning--Quiet Americans reveals how truly broad the legacy of the holocaust is, a breadth those other writers could not imagine because of their closeness its initial and most horrific events.

The book opens with three historical fictions, each asking questions that are both funadmental and irresolvable. In the first, "For Services Rendered," an immigrant doctor must struggle with the fact that he owes his life and the life of his family to the timely advice and practical assistance of Hermann Goering and his wife, the same Goering who at the time is being tried as a war criminal in Nuremberg. Should Dr. Weldmann, out of a sense of personal responsibility, write a letter of support for Goering or his wife, or would doing so be a violation against the millions of Jews who suffered under the regime Goering fought for? In the cunningly narrated "Matrilineal Descent," which opens even before the onset of the First World War, the frustrating, inexcusable coldness and lack of assistance shown by Emma Gross toward her more popular younger sister Karoline--and to the sister's young son after Karoline kills herself--is contrasted in one chilling sentence at story's end with the wider evil to come. How harshly do we feel like condemning Emma when we find out that come 1940 she was deported by the Nazis and never heard from again? Can we possibly say that the punishment fits her "crime"? And in "Lebensraum," we meet Karoline's son as he is in 1944. He has emigrated to America, joined the army, and now works stateside as a cook in a camp for German prisoners of war. The same Germans who drove him from his home country, and killed so many of his relatives, are put to work for Josef in his kitchen. The awkwardness is felt on all sides, brought to a point when Josef thinks he hears one of the Germans mutter "Jude" under his breath. Things become even more awkward when some of the Germans are permitted to observe Josef's son's bris. What, the story asks, ought to permitted, even expected, in this new, broad, unthreatening country, and what amounts to a violation? Outside of the Old World context, the answers are not simple, but, the story points out, the pain surrounding such decisions is what the holocaust has engendered, just one of its many terrible, unfortunate outcomes.

The last four stories in the book are set much further ahead in time. In them we find anti-Semitic actions and sentiments reborn at the 1972 Olympics and in post-9/11 America in the wake of the destruction of the Twin Towers. The original immigrants to the U.S. still struggle to put the holocaust behind them, while theirs son and daughters--and grandsons and granddaughters--try to come to terms with family history and encourage the older generation to do the same. But how much pushing is too much pushing? And do the younger generations really appreciate what they will find when they begin to look into the past? Two of these stories struck me with special sharpness. In "The Quiet American," a thirty-something year old Jewish American, visiting Stuttgart for a professional conference, is bemused and then increasingly aggravated by a tour guide who cannot stop pointing out all the buildings that were bombed during the war. The polite American, who understands--perhaps too well--the protocols of being a good traveler, cannot bring herself to confront this tour guide and make the woman face the obvious: that the buildings were bombed as a result of a war that Germany itself brought on. Until relief comes from an unexpected source, the quiet American can do nothing but suffer, both from the tour guide's hammer-heavy myopia and from self-loathing at her own inability to act. Finally, in "Mispocha," the son of an immigrant couple that has always refused to discuss their lives in Germany and their early years in the United States decides to take matters into his own hands. He becomes active in various organizations dedicated to Jewish family research. He submits a DNA sample to a laboratory in hopes of learning more about his paternal ancestry. What he finds, however, shocks and befuddles him. He can think of no logical explanation for the results. But, as Dreifus shows us, an explanation is found, one that no one could have guessed at yet which reveals another small, sad corner of the holocaust legacy.

While Dreifus certainly makes use of her own family's history, and some of her own experiences in Quiet Americans, she has composed something that is even more profound and affecting than memoir, a book that makes an imaginative leap not just into the life of a single grandparent but several--even into the generation prior to her grandparents--and then forward into the generations that followed. Not quite a novel-in-stories--because the cast of characters, and the number of families involved, is wide indeed--Quiet Americans nonetheless has the historical perspective, the intuitive grasp over cause and effect, of a grand historical novel. But at the same time--and what I love most about the book--these gently narrated stories are incredibly intimate, sharply focused little gems. They reveal piece by piece, person by person, what a whole people and a whole country have yet to fully understand or overcome.


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