The Shawl

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 September, 2007, 12:00am

The Shawl

by Cynthia Ozick

Orion, HK$135

In 1949, Theodor Adorno wrote: 'To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric'. The dictum is generally taken to mean that to write imaginatively about the Holocaust is inevitably to mitigate its horror and threaten the historical record.

Although many survivor-writers have produced extraordinary works that cannot conceivably be seen as trivialising the Shoah, non-Holocaust survivors remain wary of imaginatively venturing into that territory and those who do so can expect critical disapprobation.

No writer is more sensitive to the moral quandaries of Holocaust representation than Cynthia Ozick. Writing in Commentary magazine in 1999, Ozick attacked William Styron's Sophie's Choice and Bernhard Schlink's The Reader for presenting anomalous scenarios - in Styron's novel, a Polish Christian Holocaust victim; in Schlink's narrative, an illiterate Nazi - which, she said, offered distorted images of the Nazi genocide. So, it may seem surprising that Ozick, although not a survivor, tackled the Shoah in her 1989 novella The Shawl.

Now reissued after long being out of print, The Shawl brings together two linked stories, 'The Shawl' and 'Rosa', each first published in The New Yorker magazine. Fearing transgression, Ozick allegedly kept the two stories in a draw for several years before publishing them. Her anxieties were unfounded; The Shawl contains some of the most powerful writing ever to address the Holocaust and its aftermath.

'The Shawl' opens with Ozick's heroine, Rosa, marching in a line towards a death camp with her 14-year-old niece, Stella, and infant daughter, Magda. Rosa keeps Magda pressed up against her body inside a shawl to hide her from the Nazis. The story's seven pages are permeated with unlikely images of beauty, reflecting Rosa's efforts to mask the horror of her situation. When the Nazis electrocute Magda by flinging her against the camp's fence, the infant is described as 'a butterfly touching a silver vine'.

The book's remaining 60 pages are taken up with 'Rosa', which finds the eponymous protagonist roughly 35 years later as 'a madwoman and a scavenger'. Rosa spends her days in the shabby room of a Miami Beach retirement hotel, having smashed up her antiques store in outrage at the indifference of customers to her Holocaust memories. The only remnant of her dead daughter is the shawl, which she worships as an idol.

Holocaust fiction often casts the survivors as heroic, angelic figures, but Ozick doesn't flinch from portraying Rosa as an unlikeable woman who never misses an opportunity to unleash her inner torment on the world. The daughter of a philosopher father and a poetess, Rosa continues to identify with her assimilated family's aristocratic hauteur, viewing herself as a descendant of the Polish gentility rather than one of the Yiddish-speaking, religious Jewish objects of Nazi persecution.

Ozick's fiction tends to be cerebral, often centring on bookish, reclusive types, much like the author. In its raw emotion, 'The Shawl' stands out from the rest of Ozick's work. But Rosa, too, is a kind of writer; she scribbles letters to Magda, whom she imagines alive, in 'the most excellent literary Polish', conjuring her ghost through writing.

The two stories function as self-contained works but assume a new richness when read together as a novella. The tough-minded satire of 'Rosa' counterbalances the wrenching, hellish rhythms of 'The Shawl'. If the novella has fallen out of fashion - neither novel nor short story - then The Shawl testifies to its potential.

It would be difficult to read a full-length novel of such concentrated and harrowing prose without becoming numb. In just 70 pages, Ozick creates a masterpiece that is modest in its aims - in its attempt to give voice to just one woman rather than a general Holocaust 'experience' - and yet strangely final, as though no other literary depiction of the Shoah could build on its sadness and power.