Dec 12, 2013
Posted on Mar 2, 2012
By Rayyan Al-Shawaf
“Hope: A Tragedy”
What would it be like to discover Anne Frank, that most beloved and celebrated victim of the Holocaust, living in your attic? For Solomon Kugel, protagonist of “Hope: A Tragedy,” the debut novel by Shalom Auslander (author of the uproarious “Foreskin’s Lament,” a memoir of growing up in a strict Orthodox Jewish household, and the similarly irreverent short story collection “Beware of God”), it’s a pretty big bummer. “While there’s never a good time to find Anne Frank in your attic,” an omniscient narrator helpfully explains, “this was a particularly bad time.”
Kugel likes the old farmhouse that he just bought in rural Stockton, N.Y., but he needs to rent out both ground-floor bedrooms to cover the mortgage. Unfortunately, his paranoid mother, who believes (wrongly) that she is a Holocaust survivor and that another genocide of the Jews is in the offing, has moved into one of the rooms, straining Kugel’s relationship with his wife, Bree. Meanwhile, the tenant who has rented the second bedroom has been complaining about needing some attic space for his stuff, and about Kugel’s mother’s tendency to usher in the morning with God-awful shrieks.
Kugel is a pretty timorous guy. But having determined that the infernal tapping sound keeping him awake nights emanates from above, he musters the courage to pull down the attic door and ascend the stairs. He expects to find a rodent of some kind, or perhaps an arsonist. Indeed, somebody has been systematically burning down farmhouses all over Stockton, and Kugel is doing his best to remain vigilant.
Instead of a rat or some wild-eyed psychopath, he finds Anne Frank. Apparently, she survived Bergen-Belsen, and at some point made her way to the States. She’s been up in this attic for decades working on a novel, and won’t leave until she’s finished. Kugel desperately wants to get rid of her, but realizes that people would be outraged to learn that a Jew had turned Anne Frank out of his house. He’ll have to adopt a more insidious strategy. “He’d play Wagner. He’d get a German shepherd. When the UPS man had gone, he’d tell her it had been a man from the Gestapo, asking a lot of questions. A lot of questions.”
Just when you think Auslander couldn’t get any more outrageous, he does. “Did you shower yet, honey? he would call downstairs to Bree. Because if you showered already I’m going to shower now.”
One cannot but suspect that Auslander would not be able to get away with such fiendishly mischievous humor were he not Jewish. And there is something opportunistic about exploiting this situation to make as many jokes as possible about Anne Frank. Indeed, if there were nothing more to the novel, it would have to be considered a failure—albeit a wickedly funny one. But Auslander is not simply out to provoke shock and laughter by being flippant. The underlying intent of “Hope: A Tragedy” is to examine the possibility of escaping the crushing burden of history. This Auslander manages through an unexpectedly successful combination of endearing crassness and profound psychological insight.
With his short story collection and memoir, Auslander developed a reputation for wit-laced pessimism. Here, he outdoes himself. “Hope: A Tragedy” derives its title from the observations of one “professor” Jove, whom Kugel began consulting a year earlier to ease the anxiety and anger that remained after his young son recovered from a life-threatening illness. Jove has been patiently explaining to Kugel that hope is the cause of all human misfortune. According to Jove, the irrational belief that one can improve anything in this world inevitably results in failure and disappointment. He considers Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot to have been fervent optimists who embarked on their experiments in mass murder in the hope that they would make the world a better place.
This is all a bit much for Kugel. He’s a pretty morbid guy, spending a good deal of his free time coming up with epigrammatic last words—for himself—and contemplating different ways of dying. But despite his knowledge that death is inevitable, he doesn’t long for it. And he’s not so sure that a life without hope is a good idea. Throughout the story, Kugel wrestles with his ambivalence toward Jove’s lugubrious Weltanschauung.
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