Book review: The Book of Aron - a child's view of Warsaw ghetto
Jim Shepard's new historical novel about a misbegotten boy growing up under Nazi rule in Poland is a short and moving masterpiece
Jim Shepard has always been preoccupied by history. His long-admired collections of short stories come with multiple pages of acknowledgments that read like the bibliographies of an intellectually promiscuous research student. His fictional subjects are often real-life figures who feature in various human fiascos spanning the centuries.
Shepard's new novel, The Book of Aron, set in the ghetto of Warsaw, Poland, is another historical fiction, but a departure of sorts. Where Shepard's short fiction often features the bit players and hapless sidemen of disaster, The Book of Aron brings to life an indisputably great man, the child advocate Janusz Korczak, who ran an orphanage and followed his charges to Treblinka.
But, as the title suggests, this is Aron's story - that of a misbegotten boy born at a disastrous time. His antics exasperate his father, who beats him. His mother, loving but harried, is confounded by his behaviour. Sickness, toil, penury, bad teeth, disaster and death rule their lives long before the Nazis even make an appearance.
Aron's early efforts to be a better person are touching. "I lectured myself on walks," he tells us. "I made lists of ways I could improve." He takes to books. He loves his mother. In the quiet hours of night, they form a special bond that is Aron's only tether to humanity.
Things for the Rozyckis don't improve when Aron's father gets a job at his cousin's factory, and they move to Warsaw. The Germans invade Poland soon after, and all Jews are shunted into the ghetto. Families double up in small apartments and sleep in hallways. Aron's father is beaten mercilessly by German soldiers. His brothers are shipped off to labour camps. Aron runs the streets with a patchwork gang, stealing and smuggling what they can. He falls in with a member of the Jewish police who turns him into an ambivalent informant.
Shepard's fidelity to the historical record is impressive, but what makes The Book of Aron a work of art is his obedience to the boy's restricted perspective. To render Aron believably, Shepard had not only to sublimate copious research; he had to channel the consciousness and patterns of speech of a Jewish-Polish boy from the 1930s while divesting himself of most of the tools and tactics a typical writer uses to tell a story: elevated diction, reader-directed introspection, knowing metaphor.
There are bleak ironies and dark comic exchanges throughout The Book of Aron. These start off in a familiar Shepard mode - one character wielding sarcasm against another - before the overwhelming colossus of Nazi oppression changes the focus.
Considerable laughter emerges out of the terrible circumstances that surround Aron and his family, as the only defence the Jews of Warsaw have against patented insanity, and it rings convincingly with the syntax and speech patterns of aphoristic Yiddish wit. This is just one example of how the book slowly expands to become something great.
Narrative art about the Holocaust runs the risk of indulging our collective yearning. We want these stories to save the characters we love. But The Book of Aron offers no reassurance. The fate of history is sealed. The book's final pages are shattering. But by reclaiming an insignificant voice and deploying it to observe a great man, Shepard turns hell into a testament of love and sacrifice. The Book of Aron is a short and moving masterpiece.
The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard (Knopf)