Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Globe & Mail: The Last Great Pan-European Novel

by Chris Scott

A fascinating family saga, Kahn & Engelmann chronicles five generations of Jewish life. Beginning in 1880 near Lake Balaton, Hungary, the narrative moves episodically from turn-of-the-century Vienna through the 20th century's convulsions, culminating in the Holocaust, the foundation of Israel and the battles for the survival of the Jewish state.

Born in Vienna in 1921, Hans Eichner fled to England in 1939, the year after Hitler's Anschluss incorporated Austria into the Reich. After completing a doctorate on Goethe and Thomas Mann at London University, Eichner taught at Queen's University, Kingston, then chaired the University of Toronto's German department. He lives in Rockwood, Ont.

Kahn & Engelmann's narrator, Peter Engelmann (also born in Vienna in 1921), becomes “an Assistant Professor [of German] at King's University in Queenstown on the North Shore of Lake Ontario.” However, Kahn & Engelmann is more than an autobiographical novel.

A brief afterword discloses that Eichner's attempt to write a documentary about “the Viennese Jews who were driven out of the country or murdered after the Anschluss” failed because the form didn't suit his commemorative purpose. “Finally a novel emerged, in which there is little that didn't actually happen, but also little that happened as it is reported here.”

Peter Engelmann's meditation on family photographs and letters revives the past – even some things best forgotten. Several chapters record the struggle for control of the dressmakers Kahn & Engelmann between Peter's father, Sándor, and his brother-in-law, Jenö Kahn, which results in the former's suicide.

Kahn & Engelmann recreates a long-lost way of life. But it also revives a vanished pan-European sensibility. Beautifully written, it may be the last great European novel, a middle-European hybrid of Remembrance of Things Past and Buddenbrooks.

In a novel woven from time and memory, the narrator can cite Tristram Shandy on the problems of a sequential narrative. Franz Kafka haunts him, as does Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, who in 1909 predicted that gloves would be made out of human skin in Europe.

Peter escapes the Nazis when a business associate of his uncle's procures an English visa. In Canada, he comes late to survivor's guilt, which is stirred by a remark of his shiksa wife, Mary, as they are kept waiting in a doctor's office. When Peter observes that he is more punctual, Mary responds that the doctor saves lives. When a colleague asks if he is teaching “the German alphabet,” Peter is at a loss. “You know,” his colleague replies, “the Greek alphabet: alpha, beta, gamma, delta; the Hebrew alphabet: aleph, beth, gimel, daleth; the Latin alphabet: a, b, c, d; the German alphabet: Auschwitz, Belsen, Chelmno, Dachau.”

“While the machinery of murder was put into action in Chelmno,” Peter laments, “I had learned Latin and read Catullus. While the deportation trains ran to Belsen and Treblinka, I had been in bed with a girlfriend. While the chimneys flamed in Auschwitz, I had written poetry.”

Must he “celebrate the literature of the murderers” with his students? He decides to become a veterinarian and emigrates to Israel, where, as a medical corpsman, he will save lives.

The question of theodicy is at the heart of Kahn & Engelmann. How can a good God permit evil? In the novel's concluding scene, set in the autumn of 1942, a Polish rabbi finds an abandoned railway car full of dead Jews. After bribing local farmers to bury the corpses, he hears a sound from the car. “God was cowering in a corner of the car and crying. The rabbi refused to comfort him.”

Yet there is much humour in Kahn & Engelmann; witness the story of Samuel Brodski, who emigrated from his shtetl to London where he worked in his brother's Whitechapel laundry. Splurging his first week's pay at a kosher restaurant, Brodski is surprised when the Chinese waiter explains the menu in fluent Yiddish. Paying his bill, Brodski asks the proprietor why the waiter speaks such good Yiddish. “Hush,” cautions the proprietor: “Don't speak so loudly. He thinks he's learning English.”

Of Vienna, Peter Engelmann asks: “Who still knows to what extent back then it was a Jewish city, with Sigmund Freud and Theodor Herzl, with Mahler and Sonnenthal, with Schnitzler and Beer-Hoffmann, with Victor Adler and Karl Kraus?” Later in his narrative, Peter remarks, “I lost all faith in Sigmund Freud once it occurred to me that he is always talking about fathers and mothers ... for every boy from a good family who wanted to sleep with his mother, there were at least ten thousand who wanted a more intimate relationship with a housemaid.”

Memory is the enemy of death, and Kahn & Engelmann is an elegant memorial. If philosopher Theodor Adorno ruled that turning the Holocaust into art is “not only immoral but perhaps even impossible,” Hans Eichner has demonstrated it is not only possible and moral but also necessary.

Novelist Chris Scott has taught English to the children of Holocaust survivors.

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