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Bearing the Body
By Ehud Havazelet
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
288 pages; $24
Nathan Mirsky, the second son of Holocaust survivors Sol and Freda Mirsky, and younger brother to the once effervescent and now dead Daniel Mirsky, could not look anyone directly in the eyes. Not his girlfriend nor his therapist nor the emergency room doctors and nurses he worked with while receiving his medical training. Comfortable only acting out his aggressive impulses in the dark with his girlfriend during lovemaking that would turn rough and ugly, he went through the awkward motions of his day feeling ill at ease with himself and others.
He would sometimes sit with his pompous therapist making vague attempts at self-understanding but mostly really enjoying his ability to dart and weave around the counselor's probing. He became adept at carefully constructing clever stories that sounded intimate and personal but ultimately said nothing about what plagued him. When the psychiatrist would push him to talk about his mother and father and now dead 42-year-old brother who had recently been murdered in San Francisco while buying drugs, Nathan would hesitate, both to speak about the past or even allow his mind to remember it.
His childhood home in Queens had always been tense and nervously silent. That same uncomfortable silence was now Nathan's. It was what he had been weaned on along with the anger and rage and self-loathing that were his father's constant companions.
This is Ehud Havazelet's first novel. He received extraordinary acclaim for his first two short-story collections What Is It Then Between Us and Like Never Before. Most short story writers struggle with the weight and expectation that come with a first novel, but Havazelet has catapulted into an entirely new and exciting realm here. His riveting third-person narrative jumps seamlessly among the anxious members of the Mirsky family creating a mesmerizing montage of the private thinking of each of them; about each other, themselves and their place in a world that has been brutally cruel to all of them.
We see how they think, how they feel, what is missing from their lives, but more importantly, the author's penetrating and astute narration shows us what they don't get about each other, the signals between them that keep getting crossed, the love that is never shown, the defensiveness that keeps getting in the way of them moving closer together. We watch them disintegrate. By the time the boys are well into young adulthood, their mother has died, and now so has Nathan's older brother, the one everyone said had so much potential. Only Nathan and his father Sol are left to go to San Francisco to bury him, and pay respects to the woman he was living with.
As Nathan travels home to pick up his father to begin their bizarre journey to California, we can feel him struggling to hold on to his studied detachment even as he stares at his late mother's carefully arranged "dense thicket of family photographs in every conceivable style of frame, fluted chipped wood to silver to transparent plastic."
Havazelet's story pivots around the emotional life of Nathan; it is his recollections that seem to us the most vivid, the most pressing, and it is his desire for some sort of release that we are rooting for. His father Sol already seems to have left the world of the living. Sol's family was butchered by the Nazis, and he has spent most of his life tortured by the memory of watching his own brother being killed in the camps by the others in the bunk who were frightened by his refusal to stop shrieking. He had not helped his brother and silently watched the others murder him, and soon afterward met his wife Freda in a relocation camp. They quickly made a pact to never speak of any of it again, and when the boys came, young and healthy and mercilessly bright, it seemed somehow so incongruous to what they had lived through before that each of them recoiled from their own children in grief-stricken silence.
The older boy Daniel, the one now dead, would sometimes try to provoke his father to speak more candidly. But even Daniel's uncontested charismatic magic could not crack the armor that had enveloped his father. Years later, after the family had already scattered, he would write to Nathan describing Sol as "my father-our father-granite man, pillar of salt, rage and suspicion and resentment his very humor and blood, what kept him standing all those years?"
But by then, Nathan had stopped writing his older brother back, He had grown tired of Daniel's excessive rhetoric and obsession with their joined pasts, weary of his brother's neediness, and still fearful that somehow Daniel could make him disappear behind him, as it had always felt to Nathan when they were kids. Daniel seduced everyone he met. Nathan wanted to forget what Daniel was begging him to remember, their life together years ago. His letters to Nathan were calls for help, a desire perhaps to remember a time when he was important, looked up to, revered, admired, recognized by everyone as the brother that was going to do something spectacular. Instead, he had been spiraling downward for years, lost in a haze of drugs.
This novel, more than any I have read in decades, is a masterful meditation on the immorality of familial silence, even for those who have suffered greatly. Sol asks, "What was a man supposed to tell his children? Everything? Did he have to say to them, every day, how he felt?... And what could he say? Listen I saw things I can't explain, even tell. I got changed, you understand? Parts of me killed off - how do I know they weren't the best parts? Was this what you said to children?"
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