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 Zelitchs 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 Louisas 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 dont want to be found."
Louisa is about the quest to locate him, the search for a place
and an identity in Israel, and Noras 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
The rabbi is fooled by the young womans 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 Jacobs 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."
Lousias 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,"Lousias 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 wont 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, shell leave me.
But what if I cant give her what she wants."
The response: "Then youre fucked. Youll never get
rid of the bitch."
Zelitchs insight is powerful: the same stubbornnessor tenacitythat
turns Louisa into Gabors stalker also makes her Noras savior.
She persists in sacrificing herself, although neither object of devotion
seems particularly worthy. Gabor is a flashy neer-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 Gabors bed:
By the time I brought the blanket back, Louisas eyes were closed,
and she had curled up with her open hand beside her cheek. I threw
the blanket over her and didnt 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
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. Zelitchs 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
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
Louisas 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 Louisas 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 Louisas 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 Naomis 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 Zelitchs 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 Louisas husband:
"Theyll pitch tents and plant things and eat what they
plant, and theyll think it makes them new men, but in the end,
theyll live in ugly cement houses with their radios on."
"Theyve 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 Zelitchs powerful novelthat
sometimes lifes post-scripts make the best reading.