- - Friday, March 2, 2012

By Nathan Englander
Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95, 224 pages

In the title story of his collection “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” Nathan Englander’s characters play a “thought game” in which they imagine which of their non-Jewish friends would risk their lives to hide them if, like Anne Frank, they had to escape a Holocaust. It’s an extraordinarily uncomfortable thing to think about for the two Jewish couples in the story - and no less so for readers, Jewish or otherwise.

The two women in the tale - Deb and Lauren - were best friends at Yeshiva school. Then, Deb married the narrator, who “turned her secular, and soon after that Lauren met Mark and they went off to the Holy Land and went from orthodox to ultra-Orthodox, which to me sounds like repackaged detergent - ORTHODOX ULTRA, now with more deep-healing power.”

Deep-healing power? Isn’t detergent supposed to have deep-cleaning power? Slip of the pen on our narrator’s part? Not likely. He’s smart. But he’s not at ease, forced by the wives’ friendship to be pally with a guy he doesn’t know and isn’t much taking to. Mark is also ready to spar. Eyeing the handsome Florida house with its huge kitchen and pool, he says, “All this house … and one son? Can you imagine?”

“No” Lauren responds. “You should see how we live with ten.” That’s their 10 daughters. The chasm between these couples widens as Deb mourns the deaths among the generation of Holocaust survivors, and Mark says, “You can’t build Jerusalem on the foundation of one terrible crime. … Judaism is a religion. … Culture is nothing.” This obiter dicta notwithstanding, their culture, aka history, has netted them so no one can move without yanking at the others and rubbing them raw. Deep healing is desirable. It’s especially needed when the game of imagining who might save them exposes the disquieting reality of their relationships.

Disquiet is a reality for readers, too. We know the couples are treading on thin ice. Can they avoid a chilling disaster? Mr. Englander briefly tweaks them from the brink, letting them revel in the rain because Mark and Lauren so rarely see it in Israel. But then he wrenches them back to their real worlds, where history has encouraged each of them to stake an ideological territory that others approach at their peril.

This often is also true in the other seven stories collected in this volume. “Sister Hills” tells of two women who settle on opposite hills outside Jerusalem in 1973. Their courage makes it possible for other settlers to make homes there, and by 2000 “those sister hills … cap a metropolis.” But while the hills mirror each other, the women do not. One is blessed; the other suffers multiple losses, so she calls in a long-forgotten deal and demands her due at horrible cost to the other. Should such long-ago contracts be enforced? On the one hand, they were real contracts; on the other, enforcement is cruel.

In “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” the lone survivor of a family murdered in the concentration camps later murders several people. He retools himself as a professor of philosophy, who surprisingly gets free fruit from the stall of an ex-Army comrade. What justifies this? The son of the stall holder cannot understand his father’s generosity. It doesn’t make sense without the context of history. But even history is mutable. The history that is personal for one generation is anecdotal for the next. Frustratingly so in “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side,” in which family history, once seemingly solid fact attested by reliable witnesses, over time gathers like quicksilver into new forms.

Most of the events that shape these stories are dark, and most are in full view. But that’s not what keeps us so edgily in our seats. We are used to dark. It’s Mr. Englander who gets our attention, often by details such as Mark’s hairiness and Lauren’s Marilyn Monroe wig in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” and the additional fat eggplant stuffed in the professor’s bag and the handfuls of pistachios the boy is told to bring for him in “Free Fruit for Young Widows.”

This story is told from the boy’s point of view, so we see how his understanding grows as he gets older. The other stories in this volume also unfold their meanings gradually as we are led step by (sometimes arduous) step to see events from the perspective of their teller. But there is never one perspective. Most of these stories have at least one incident that shows how hard it can be to adopt another’s viewpoint.

Mark, for example, realizes that his father must have been in the same concentration camp as another resident of his retirement community. He’s awed at the coincidence, but the two old men are seemingly unmoved and uninterested in each other. In “Camp Sundown,” aged Holocaust survivors at a summer camp are sadly embroiled in fears that are ludicrous from the point of view of the young camp staff. The reader can see both points of view. So sad. And so hard to deal with.

But while the steely control of perspective unsettles the reader, it also refreshes. These beautifully crafted stories take us back to parables, to Central European marchen, to Jewish tales and to modern writers such as Raymond Cheever, whose “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” underpins the title of the volume. Their knots and burls and jokes demand work and attention - and the reward for that is intense satisfaction.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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