I’ve gone out the window – Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander

How do you react when a book touts itself as ‘The Most Controversial Book of the Year’?  With some scepticism seems wise; publishers will say anything in order sell a book.  I’m sure Picador would love it to be true, a bit healthy debate in the media does wonders for book sales.  Exaggerated though the claims may be, I hope they work.

‘Hope: A Tragedy’ is a fresh, funny and thought-provoking novel that deserves a wide readership.  Certainly this is a book that will offend some people; probably those who haven’t read it.  It’s that sort of book.  It deals with the Holocaust and survivor guilt, and has lots of counter-intuitive things to say.  Counter intuitive, but on reflection, remarkably perceptive.

Sol Kugel is a standard neurotic Jewish narrator, the sort that graces many a Woody Allen film (see also Evan Mandery’s excellent Q: A Love Story).  Sol is obsessed with death and in particular his last words – he wants to make sure they’re meaningful.  He lives with his family, in a house he hates, worrying it might be the death of him.  His mother lives with them, having been given two weeks to live. Six months ago.  If that wasn’t enough, as the novel opens, he discovers an ageing Anne Frank in his attic; she claims to have been there for forty years.

This is a book about survivor guilt and the effect of the Holocaust on American Jewish society.  It’s a novel about the first world’s obsession with tragedy; the more tragic something is, the happier it makes us.  The living embodiment of this is Sol’s mother, a woman who claims to have survived Auschwitz, despite being born in Brooklyn in 1946.  The more she suffers, and the more she can tell people she has suffered the happier she is. This is a book that asks whether we should try so hard to remember atrocities, because doesn’t that make it impossible to forgive, and to move on?  This is a book that questions the wisdom of optimism.

There are number of intriguing characters, who though not terribly interesting in themselves have some very interesting things to say.  There is Pinkus, Sol’s brother-in-law, an evolutionary biologist (a thinly veiled Steven Pinker) who expounds that there has never been a better time to be alive; humans are nicer to one another now than at any time in history.   Sol’s psychiatrist, who thinks that optimism is a curse, citing Hitler as an optimist, because he thought he could make the world a better place.   Then there is Anne Frank, hoping to write another book.   She’s a writer, who’s sold 32 million copies.  She must have talent, right?

As you might expect ‘Hope: A Tragedy’ is filled with black humour and laced with irony.  Beneath its irreverent exterior is a core of intelligent observation, and razor sharp insight.  I imagine that some will find that Auslander’s style grates, and there will be those few who misunderstand what he is trying to say.  ‘Hope’ is bound to polarise opinion.  In a world beset by tragedy and embroiled in endless repercussions, this is a novel that has a lot to say, and most of it worth listening to.  Highly recommended.

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