- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 13, 2002

By Jurek Becker
Translated from the German by Alessandra Bastagli
Arcade, $24.95, 277 pages

When Jurek Becker wrote "Jacob the Liar," a novel about a young Jewish prisoner in a Polish ghetto who pretends he has a radio, Mr. Becker explained that he "wanted to know if there is a level at which the rules of logic are unimportant and obsolete and are replaced by the rules of morality … whether [storytelling in times of misery] can help people to survive, or distract the worries they would have been better off taking care of."
In "The Boxer," Mr. Becker seems to turn his premise upside down to examine the absence of hope and imagination when survival is assured after years of deprivation and misery.
Mr. Becker, one of Germany's leading postwar writers, was born in Lodz, Poland in 1937. He spent his early childhood in the Lodz ghetto and in the concentration camps of Ravensbruck and Sachsenhausen. Miraculously, he survived and went to East Berlin in 1945. He has criticized the Communist regime and written about the Jewish experience. He died of cancer at the age of 59.
"The Boxer," first published in Germany in 1976, and now published in the United States in an excellent translation by Alessandra Bastagli, is the story of Aron Blank who is being interviewed as a concentration camp survivor by an unnamed journalist. Aron is a caustic, sarcastic, self-centered alcoholic.
Aron's second wife and their two older children were murdered by the Nazis. To safeguard his two-year-old son, Mark, Aron asked a neighbor to take care of the child and protect him.
Managing to survive, Aron and finds himself in the Russian sector of Berlin at the end of the war. He turns to Rescue, an organization which helps displaced persons find one another, to help look for his son. With the assistance of Paula, an attractive young Rescue employee, an emaciated child is found who could be Aron's, although the child has no memory of what may have transpired in the meantime.
Aron recreates what appears to be a normal family life when Paula comes to live with him and Mark. But Paula leaves and is replaced by Irma, the nurse who took loving care of Mark at the children's home.
In fact, life is far from "normal." Aron uses Paula and Irma as wives, but offers them neither emotional intimacy nor love. His work as a bookkeeper for a black market operator provides him with money and ample access to the cognac and cigarettes he loves. Rather than continue when his employer starts a legitimate business, he becomes a translator for the Russian authorities.
The father does his best with Mark, but fails to ask the boy what he wants in life. So Aron is stunned when Mark disappears. Mark wanders around the world and settles in Israel. Ironically, Aron is proud that he has not "made a Jew out of [Mark]," complaining that "[t]he son of Catholic parents can, when he reaches maturity, freely choose whether or not he wants to become a Catholic like his parents. Why does one … refuse the same right to the children of Jewish parents?"
Mark writes Aron every month, but Aron never answers. When the letters cease at about the time of the 1967 war, Aron assumes Mark has been killed, but he does not investigate. He grows old, always lonely, always isolated.
Although Paula reminds Aron "if we wanted to forget everything else first, then we would never get around to living," Aron is unable to forget and tells his interviewer, "You mustn't think that a camp like that ends from one day to the next. That would be nice. You're freed, get out, and everything's over. Unfortunately, it's not like that; you imagine it's far too easy the camp runs after you. The barrack pursues you, the smell pursues you, the hunger pursues you, the beatings pursue you, the fear pursues you. The lack of dignity pursues you, and the insults."
Yet, Aron's selfishness cannot be blamed totally on the years of his incarceration. He has always been essentially passive and lonely. "Can you imagine," he asks his interviewer, "that there is a kind of weariness that makes all action impossible?" His prewar dismissive attitude toward his first wife, who went to America with her father, suggests an arrogance and lack of emotional generosity unrelated to, although perhaps exacerbated by, the camp experience.
Aron is a man of considerable talents, but he is unwilling to exert himself or to exercise self-control and often acts with cruelty. Ultimately, he is responsible for his own loneliness.
"The Boxer" is not a fable about hope. Rather, it is a tale of alienation, an eloquent, existential portrayal of a man too damaged even to pay attention to the beaurocratic constraints of his existence. He is not defiant; he acts by ignoring or bribery, motivated by self interest. He has survived; the consequences of his words and deeds are irrelevant to him. The reader is never privy to the thoughts and emotions of the other characters, a device that makes "The Boxer" truly Aron's story. It's a a fascinating, very readable and elegantly told tale, written in the best tradition of Kafka.

Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.

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