A non-partisan journal of the left.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: Nathan Englander

Mon 9th Apr 2012

It is a book that has won widespread acclaim from almost every A-list author in America (as has the writer) and in his latest collection of short-stories Nathan Englander, author of ‘For the Relief of Unbearable Urges’,draws on the title of Raymond Carver’s own second collection of iconic stories: ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’.

Englander’s title may suggest that we are about to embark of a series of stories whose central theme is the Holocaust, and the lasting wound that has left, but this is a book that also encompasses, sometimes tactlessly, humour among tragedy; guilt amid innocence, and victim or oppressor.

The title story draws Carver’s model of two couples at a table with a bottle between them, in Carver’s case gin, in Englander’s vodka.

The tale focuses on a family game played by a couple of secular Floridians, hosting a couple of Ultra-Orthodox Jerusalemites. The former are clearly not under danger of being persecuted yet the wife, a childhood friend of the born again Ultra-Orthodox wife, is obsessed with playing ‘Who Would Hide Me?’ in the event of an American Holocaust, a game described by the couple as a ‘thought experiment’. As the evening progresses and the four get both stoned and drunk, the tension about martial loyalty veers towards religious and ethnic identity, and exposes vulnerabilities.

Deb’s game (and her extensive stocking of the pantry eliciting Shoshana, her Yeshiva friend, to ask “Are you expecting a nuclear winter?”) is one the Florida migrants have kept a secret, much like the secret that Deb has kept from her husband - that she smoked pot as a youth. Yerucham, whose pre-Hasidic name was Mark, meanwhile looks for support from his wife over his view that inter-marriage is effectively a modern day Holocaust: identity and loyalty played out at once.

As somber as it may sound, the freewheeling scenario is treated with a touch that at turns lends the story sympathy and makes it a little farcical. It is also one mapped out by Englander’s own personal experiences. The ‘Anne Frank Game’, he has admitted was one that he and his older sister played as youths, telling the New Yorker: “What turned it into material for a story…became clear to me that it wasn’t a game at all. The highest compliment we give to certain friends is to say something like ‘Yes, Nicole would hide me. She really would.”

Spanning four decades is the story ‘Sister Hills’, the tale of two female settlers from the eve of the Yom Kippur War through to the present day. The two pioneers strike a bargain to save a daughter, indulging in an old superstition (to outsmart the Angel of Death) one woman ‘sells’ her child for a token payment to the other. Both woman later set claim to the girl, amid the backdrop of Arab/Jewish land disputes and vast change in the settlements. "Look, Mother, at how our settlement grows," cries a character as the small outpost evolves into a full-blow, modern-day city, desirable to incoming Yuppies. The book explores how it is not only the land that changed but the honouring of old traditions (but it this ultimately true?).

Judaism and the identity of the Jew lies at the core of Englander’s stories, but they do not make the whole, and nor do the politics. The writer is reaching out to explore the foibles and follies of all people, their desires and denials, the mess that life can be. Whatever creed you may be, it is worth a read.

ISBN-10: 0307989291 - Random House
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