My conviction that Aharon Appelfeld was the greatest Jewish writer alive began when I was perhaps 50 pages into his first novel to be translated into English, Badenheim 1939. It was a Holocaust novel, perhaps the greatest Holocaust novel ever written, I suddenly surmised, set in a spa town, before the war even started. It conveyed the desperation, self-deception, fratricidal impulses, paranoia and dread of a people sentenced to die.
What was so remarkable was that Appelfeld conveyed this sweeping psychological portrait of a people on the edge of annihilation without a single scene from a ghetto, a concentration camp, or a gas chamber. At the very end of the book there was a train. The train did all the work, I saw. I marveled at the weirdness, the historicity, the mythic economy, of this highly unusual creation, a masterpiece of irony that was at the same time exceedingly empathetic and gentle, at the same time as it terrified me. It was like a bedtime story written by Kafka. Then I forgot about it, or mostly forgot about it.
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