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Louisa
Simone Zelitch
Putnam, $24.95 (cloth)

by Leora Bersohn

Some three thousand years ago, the Book of Ruth recounts, an Israelite woman, Naomi, escaped famine in the land of Canaan by taking her two sons to the land of Moab. Both sons took Moabite wives, but soon a plague struck and the wives were left widowed. Naomi decided to return to the Israelites in Canaan. Both daughters-in-law offered to go with her, and one, named Ruth, could not be dissuaded. She famously promised, "Whither thou goest, I shall go. Your nation shall be my nation, and your God my God." The Book of Ruth is not about the doings of kings, prophets, or judges, but rather about the responses of ordinary people to extreme circumstances.

Simone Zelitch’s second novel, Louisa, tells a wartime version of the story of Ruth. In prewar Hungary, Gabor, a young Jewish man, impregnates and marries a German girl. Soon after, Nazi soldiers catch him at a railway station and murder him, leaving behind his widow, Louisa, and his mother, Nora. Louisa, like Ruth, cleaves to her Jewish mother-in-law, hiding her, bringing her food, removing her waste, singing to her, and obtaining cigarettes whenever and however possible. Nora survives the war, thanks to Louisa’s bravery and care, and after the peace makes plans to go to Israel in search of a Zionist cousin whom she has not seen in years. Louisa, a Gentile and a German, decides to join her.

For the two refugees, the modern State of Israel is no land of milk and honey. Holocaust survivors see Louisa as a devil, locals see Nora as a "sabon," a weak foreigner who only narrowly escaped being made into a bar of soap, and as for the elusive cousin, as one relief worker tells Nora, "Some cousins don’t want to be found." Louisa is about the quest to locate him, the search for a place and an identity in Israel, and Nora’s painful narration of her life in Hungary.

The reference to the story of Ruth and Naomi is explicit. When Louisa meets the rabbi who is to supervise her conversion, he is disappointed:

All of this high drama had led the rabbi to expect a beauty. The Book of Ruth was foremost in his mind; how could it not be? Here she was the daughter of a cursed nation, far from home, clinging to her mother-in-law and taking on her people and her God. But this Ruth was more a Leah, a defeated girl with weak eyes and a forgettable face.

The rabbi is fooled by the young woman’s unprepossessing looks, which belie her passion and her heroism. Yet in one sense, he reads Louisa perfectly: Leah is one of the most underestimated characters in the Bible. She was Jacob’s second choice, but she gave birth to six sons, who founded six of the twelve tribes of Israel, literally half the nation. Eventually, the rabbi abandons his idealized image of the story of Ruth, and with it the need for Nora and Louisa to live up to a false standard: "The biblical Naomi was not a sweet old lady. After the death of her sons, she had asked her fellow Israelites to change her name to Bitterness."

Lousia’s reader undergoes much the same process. Louisa is initially inscrutable, and the Book of Ruth is a vaguely recalled cliché about loyalty. Eventually we come to respect Louisa without quite warming to her or understanding her. Only after we have granted this respect to the modern-day Ruth, about half way through the novel, does Zelitch provide us with a summary of the Book of Ruth. Lovely in its lyricism, the summary humanizes a story that has becomes pat, and thus performs in miniature what the novel enacts on a grander scale.

Using recent and ancient history as a backdrop, Zelitch dramatizes the tremendous strength and kindness found in otherwise mundane individuals. Why is Louisa willing to play Ruth to this sarcastic, chain-smoking Naomi? "Why,"Lousia’s rabbi wonders, did she leave her home and her life and take on the life of someone else? Is there a reason for an act so rash and selfless?" Louisa returns again and again to explorations of the nature of altruism. A psychologist posits that generosity is selfish; other evidence in the novel suggests that it is masochistic. Early in his relationship with Louisa, Gabor flees to a bar, where he asks an older man how to get rid of "some girl who won’t let go":

"If you want to get rid of her," instructs the man, "give her everything she wants."

"So if I give her everything she wants, she’ll leave me. But what if I can’t give her what she wants."

The response: "Then you’re fucked. You’ll never get rid of the bitch."

Zelitch’s insight is powerful: the same stubbornness–or tenacity–that turns Louisa into Gabor’s stalker also makes her Nora’s savior. She persists in sacrificing herself, although neither object of devotion seems particularly worthy. Gabor is a flashy ne’er-do-well, and Nora, even before the war, is defensive and outwardly cold. In her efforts to hide tenderness she stifles basic impulses to kindness. When Louisa shows up, sixteen and pregnant, at her apartment in Budapest, Nora lets the girl fall asleep in Gabor’s bed:

By the time I brought the blanket back, Louisa’s eyes were closed, and she had curled up with her open hand beside her cheek. I threw the blanket over her and didn’t fiddle with it, but took myself out of that room as quickly as I could before I gave in to the temptation to take off her shoes and stockings and lay them at the foot of the bed.

Before the war Nora chooses to be aloof; after she loses her son, her apathy becomes less a matter of choice than of necessity.

Writing about the qualities necessary for survival in a concentration camp, the psychologist Viktor Frankl wrote: "The best of us did not return." Frankl understood that extermination quotas and limited rations condemned the self-effacing prisoners to death, and that the survivors lost the best parts of themselves. Zelitch’s Nora is no exception; she survives in part because she is not a nice person, but she also makes sure not to be a nice person in order to survive. Huddled in the cellar in Budapest, as Allied bombs sail overhead, she mourns:

I am drowning, I am already dead, and she looks at me like that, wants something from me, and I want a cigarette, I want my son, I want my husband, everything at once, like light breaking.

There was no light. Even the bomb flares died now. Yet the aura of Louisa’s tenderness lingered, and I knew she was still gazing down, with those two fingers at her mouth, staring into the cellar as into a well which might show her a reflection. How much could I even hate that girl? I knew then: not enough. How much could I love her or anyone? I also knew: not enough.

By the time she descends into Louisa’s cellar, Nora has lost everything. It is thus no surprise that her narration is pervaded with a sense of being after-the-fact, too late for love, hate, or anything much else.

Zelitch is not, however, merely interested in mourning a tragedy. Louisa is a novel about what happens after tragedy, about unexpected finales. There are two such last acts here. The first is the rebuilding of Nora and Louisa’s family, which occurs when Louisa remarries, in Israel, and has a child. The other unexpected triumph in the novel is the building of the Jewish state. In Louisa, as in the story of Ruth, nation and family are rebuilt in tandem. According to the Bible, Ruth marries a kinsman of Naomi’s named Boaz, and they are ancestors to King David. Thus, Ruth symbolizes not only the possibility of friendship between Jew and Gentile, but also the rejuvenation and the glory of the Jewish people.

Despite Zelitch’s accurate and rather damning portrayal of the treatment of immigrants in the early days of the State of Israel, Louisa is a Zionist novel. Recognizing the shortcomings of the Zionist idea and its practical applications, Zelitch still finds that idea worthy. Near the end of the novel, a group of recent immigrants are working in a field, to the discontent of Louisa’s husband:

"They’ll pitch tents and plant things and eat what they plant, and they’ll think it makes them new men, but in the end, they’ll live in ugly cement houses with their radios on."

"They’ve lived in worse places," Louisa said, and it was then he took a closer look at those young men and women in their short sleeved tops and saw the tattooed numbers.

Yet he persisted, speaking directly to Louisa now. "What kind of ending is that?"

Louisa looked up at him and asked, ‘Why is it an ending?’

This is precisely the point of Zelitch’s powerful novel–that sometimes life’s post-scripts make the best reading.

Leora Bersohn is a graduate student at Columbia University.

Originally published in the October/ November 2000 issue of Boston Review



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