|The Argaman Quintet: The Flaming Sword, A Little Oil & Root, The Chronicle of the Kingdom of Alphalia, The Hourglass, Going to the Wall.
From the stetls of Eastern Europe, through resistance to the Nazi Holocaust and the birth of modern Israel, to the plight of Eastern European Jewry under Communism, five novels which explore the moral complexities of being Jewish in an anti-Semitic world.
The Flaming Sword
Recounted in the third person, but still an autobiography, "The Flaming Sword" tells the journey of Bernhard Aaronsohn from assimilated German Jew and artistic 'prodigy', via exile in England with his friend Max Jacob, to the resistance movements of France and Poland, ultimately to the failed insurrection at Auschwitz and a year of forging paintings in Himmler's Austrian hideaway. The paintbrush or the gun? Impossible choices made all-too-possible by the expediencies of History.
"There are enough novels and films and testimonies by survivors that the world didn't need another Holocaust novel, especially a fictional one. But everything that I have ever read, or seen, has chosen to present the Jew as victim, as passive martyr, and there is another tale to tell, that of the men and women who resisted, in the ghettos and the forests of Poland, even inside the death camps. I wanted to understand how someone could become a resistance fighter, what happens to the taught morality, the tendency towards civilisation. How do you overcome your natural good and take on the role of the very evil you are seeking to destroy - and not become evil yourself? How do you become the model killer, and still sleep at night? The challenge of every freedom fighter everywhere in the world."
Excerpt: The opening of "The Flaming Sword":
But the ovens were eventually switched off, the Zyklon-B canisters sealed tight, the gates of the camps thrown open to let out the truth that no one truthfully wished to hear. What was Bernhard supposed to do? Go back to England, to the Slade, and resume his apprenticeship as an artist as though the war had been nothing more than an interlude, a diversion, an extended summer holiday? Take a car southwards to Vienna from the Alt-Aussee and spend a fortnight visiting bombed-out tourist sites and sun-bathing on the banks of the Blue Danube? Close his eyes and dream the long and tranquil dream of peace and prosperity, the one in which the Messiah was due at any moment, the one in which Apocalypse was just some poet's unimaginable vision of the future, and Holocaust the ultimate fantasy bred in two thousand years of Jewish paranoia? What was he supposed to do? Gather up the dry bones and hold them to his ear like sea-shells, listening for the voice of Zarathustra among the waves and storm-tides as he cried out "God Is Dead" in broken Yiddish? What then? Pick up the pieces and begin again?
"The comrades are regrouping at Praszka," the note from Baruch 'Haman' had read. "Chaim and Miriam and some of the others are already there. I've no idea how many of us are left. We can't trust the Allies, Bernhard. There's still much work to be done. Meet us as soon as you're able."
A Raphael "Madonna" painted on Himmler's orders, with three of the tiniest mistakes that only an expert would have been able to detect. A jar of acrylic mixed with sand in order to create a handful of 'original' Picassos. Holbein's "King Richard", invented with techniques invented by Van Dyck. A hundred flawed forgeries, a hundred blemished counterfeits; and then fifty and more secret canvases, each one painted clandestinely and concealed in any convenient nook or cranny of the Zwielichthof: the ones that Himmler didn't commission for his private collection, the ones of Auschwitz and Treblinka and the cellar at Kovno and the woods behind Praszka and the railway sidings at Lublin seen briefly through the crack in the sealed door of a cattle-train. No, it wasn't much to be leaving behind, it wasn't a great deal of resistance to show for his last year and a half of war. But Baruch 'Haman'? Hadn't they already killed enough for one lifetime? Hadn't the years before they were all captured proven conclusively that justice by bomb and firing-squad wasn't really justice at all? Hadn't he spent a whole year at the Zwielichthof, sleep-walking back and forth between the lavatory-bowl and the cattle-trough, trying to wash his hands clean, crying "Out, damned spot" in a voice more plaintive even than that of Lady Macbeth? Wasn't it enough to have survived?
He went to Poland though, to Praszka. He borrowed a suit from Howard Vaughan (Theo, as he'd nicknamed him, Major Howard Vaughan, new-found friend and patron, Allied Commander at the recaptured Alt-Aussee, quartermaster of the Devil's treasure-house: ten million forged dollars, a thousand faked paintings and lithographs, a year's worth of Bernhard Aaronsohns that he'd promised to take care of and try to exhibit back in London) and went to Praszka, army jeep by army jeep, a twenty-six year old mass-murderer ex-convict going back to Poland to take justice into his own hands once more and do the work of finishing off the Ubermensch with which the Allies simply could not be entrusted.
He went - but couldn't stay. He went - but couldn't act. Not any more. Not after Treblinka. Not after Auschwitz. The very coldness of the rifle in his hands caused him to tremble. The very taste of paraffin in his throat caused him to retch. The rancid smells of gunpowder and burning - he wanted, longed for, dreamed a vengeance far, far sweeter than ever these could bring. But how? But when? A mass-murderer - even if all his victims were but Nazis. An ex-convict - even if his prison was but Auschwitz. From Praszka he'd gone to Lublin and helped bury more than seventy suicides a week for practically a lifetime, even if it was but seven weeks. Then how? And when?
He put down his brushes and his gun and boarded a cattle-train that was making the return voyage into Germany. ("Dear Theo," he would write, "yes, I know we agreed it would be stupid, but here I am anyway, the unwelcome prodigal as it transpired, the Crusader who never reached Jerusalem but did at least manage to arrange an early meeting with Allah for any number of the Infidel. It was stupid, but here I am anyway...") For where else can a man go except home in order to discover that he no longer has a home to go to? ("Cast out on the rubbish-heap by the bailiffs of History like discarded relics from some closed-down museum.") Not that home had ever really been home anyway, even before they packed him off to England. Home was a place of exile from which he'd been sent into another place of exile, and to which he was now returning, trying to envisage what he might find there, what smells, what ruins, what all-too-familiar signs of devastation. It was hard, but he knew that if he anticipated the worst he was unlikely to be proved mistaken. Not that anything could surprise or shock him now, not after stumbling to the very edge of the abyss, and falling headlong. Whatever darkness lay ahead of him, it couldn't possibly be more deep or dense than that which lay behind:
sleeping on a bed of skulls, using human bodies for a blanket;
dining on grass and thistles, drinking the nectar of sewage water;
watching the blood pour from his gun like a stream of purest poetry;
looking out through the forbidden gates and finding nothing but Man and Earth beyond;
learning to see in the darkness, to gaze into the furnace without blinking twice;
going beyond the stage of wanting to hang himself;
swearing to bear witness with all the cunning of his right arm.
Until only his nostalgia remained unviolated by so much ruination. His nostalgia, and a nagging, gnawing longing for revenge.