Dreaming in Israel

In Aharon Appelfeld's novel, a teenage Holocaust survivor sleeps, remembers, and learns to speak anew.

If it’s universally acknowledged that a person who speaks a lot about her dreams is a bore, it’s equally certain that books featuring more than a few dream sequences make for tiresome reading. When employed as a device to propel an otherwise pokey or improbable plot, dreams seem too convenient or cheap—a bothersome fringe that could easily be trimmed away. But when the dreams are woven into the fabric of a psyche and of a story, as in Aharon Appelfeld’s newest book, the effect is powerful, hallucinatory, and haunting.

From the first line of the novel we are given to know that the title character’s dreams are urgent and necessary work. “At the end of the war, I became im­mersed in constant slumber,” begins Erwin’s account of his journey with other Holocaust survivors from Europe to Israel. He’s a teenager, but it’s as if he’s a baby, even one in the womb. His body, he says, remembers “that darkness, drifting and being borne along.” The refugees move him, feed him, and try to wake him. But sleep is a force with substance and texture of its own that traps him, overpowers him, swaddles him: all he wants is to return to his home and parents, which are no more. He is a ragged sleeve that sleep is knitting up; in his sleep, he is finishing his childhood, ending the long nightmare of the war, and struggling to awake (or to be reborn) into something new. “I wish you a fine awakening and a life of alertness, activity, and the ability to love,” writes a man in the camp who resembles Erwin’s lost Uncle Arthur.

Erwin repeatedly encounters stran­gers who look like lost relatives. He is in that position too, looking like someone’s lost son. The repetition evokes the confusion, longing, and loneliness of a generation of survivors, each of whom must have searched the faces on every ship arriving in Haifa, squinting to discern familiarity and fixating on whatever familiarity was to be found. “In every corner I see a relative,” Erwin says to a woman who reminds him of his Aunt Elsa. He rouses himself to alertness to seek out his relatives and then falls back into slumber to talk over his new life with his parents. His dreams are not written “dreamily” but matter-of-factly, and of whole cloth with the novel, which encourages readers to take them as seriously as Erwin does.