Book of the week : Hope : A Tragedy - Shalom Auslander

 Hope: A Tragedy is the darkest of dark comedies. It’s as uncomfortably hilarious as it is shockingly offensive. Only those with thick skins and a taste for scatological humor and the trampling of sacred boundaries should pick it up. Shalom Auslander’s first novel  is equal parts Philip Roth and Franz Kafka

Solomon Kugel is mired in a fairly glum existence as a salesman for a composting company called EnviroSolutions. He’s a protagonist straight out of a Woody Allen film, racked by constant worry — and swimming in a pool of neuroses deeper and darker than the Mariana Trench. His mind plays host to a parade of nagging fears, morbid digressions, and firmly rooted paranoia. And yet, he considers himself an optimist. Why would he spend so much time pondering worst-case scenarios if he weren’t truly hoping for the best case?

He’s just moved to a “small but charming” old farmhouse in Stockton,  a small town in New York from NYC with his wife, Bree, a wannabe writer, their young son, Jonah, and Solomon’s mother, who is suffering from dementia

Kugel has picked Stockton as a place to live because it is “famous for nothing. No one famous had lived there, no famous battles had been waged there, no famous concerts had been held there”

He hopes that the lack of history will ensure that his own life is uneventful

No such luck

As soon as he moves in, he learns that an arsonist is targeting farmhouses in the area, and he is besieged by noises and a rotten odour traveling through the air vents in the house. When he goes up to the attic to investigate, he discovers that it is inhabited by a surprising resident whom he finds impossible to evict

Anne Frank

Yes, Anne Frank

Kugel discovers that the famed diarist and Holocaust victim, far from dead, has miraculously survived bergen-belsen and has actually been sequestered in American suburban attics as she pens her follow-up book. She’s not the beatific teen whose visage graced millions of book covers, but has morphed into a foulmouthed harridan with unkempt hair and talon-like fingernails who does all she can to ruin Kugel’s life. As Solomon veers back and forth between wanting to placate the woman or throw the “old bag” out, Frank herself works incessantly on a follow-up to her famed diary, lets loose with Linda Blair-esque invective when Solomon provides her with Ezekiel bread instead of the matzo she has demanded, and angrily decries what she sees as the cult of worship that has sprouted up around her memory. She is worth more dead to the Jewish people than she would ever have been had she survived, she says

“I’m the sufferer. I’m the dead girl. I’m Miss Holocaust, 1945,” Frank declares. “Jesus was a Jew … but I’m the Jewish Jesus”

Undoubtedly, many readers will take offense at Auslander’s irreverent characterization of Anne Frank, probably a good deal more than were offended by “The Ghost Writer,” Philip Roth’s short 1979 novel that also speculated on an alternate history for Frank. But it’s hard to feel too offended by a writer who is trying so deliberately to incite

At their most provocative, Auslander’s ruminations and his clever inversions of conventional wisdom can challenge readers to re-examine opinions they probably take for granted, particularly regarding how the history of the Holocaust is remembered and taught. For Auslander, the post-World War II mantra “Never forget” is a particularly vexing one

“What’s the harm in forgetting? What does remembering do?” Kugel asks. “If you don’t learn from the past, said someone, you are condemned to repeat it. But what if the only thing we learn is that we are condemned to repeat it regardless?”

The book is dangerously funny, and the rants are fierce and pointed. In another writer’s hands, the Anne Frank conceit might seem gimmicky, but Auslander is a masterful comedian and talented stylist. Where Hope starts to grind its gears is in the story; Kugel wants Anne to leave, but he also wants her to stay; his ambivalence presents a tediousness and repetition to the action. But the tediousness is more Beckett than boring, and the serious moral and existential questions that this allows Auslander to consider are the real payoff to Hope

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