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The Immortal Bartfuss (Bartfus Ben Haalmavet)

THE IMMORTAL BARTFUSS (Bartfus ben haalmavet)

Novel by Aharon Appelfeld, 1988

Another "small masterpiece" (the epithet frequently evoked by reviewers and critics about Aharon Appelfeld's novels), The Immortal Bartfuss, published in Hebrew and in English translation in 1988, focuses on a survivor living in Israel and haunted by his Holocaust experiences. He devotes 15 minutes a day to earning a living in underground dealings, spends endless days and nights in a Jaffa café or wandering about the beach or the city, and takes uneasy satisfaction in the knowledge that he has hidden three bars of gold, gold watches, two necklaces, some cash, and old photographs of his parents and sister. He is estranged from his wife and retarded daughter, distrustful of them and almost everyone else, and always deep in his private thoughts. With sparse details and tight, spare narrative, Appelfeld sets a dreamlike tone, a gauzelike backdrop for inaccessible characters. Bartfuss, like Appelfeld himself, is, in the words of Leonard Michaels, "a figure of awesome interiority."

Elaborating on his obsession with survivors whose lives are marked by the absence of both language and mutual personal relationships, Appelfeld explained to Philip Roth that the "Holocaust belongs to the type of enormous experience which reduces one to silence." Bartfuss is the essence of the survivor who remains alienated by choice as well as by circumstance. He trusts no one, not even himself. He blames his wife, Rosa, beyond forgiveness for surviving by sleeping with a peasant and his sons and repeatedly accuses her of selling herself: "There's a limit to disgrace. Life is valuable, but not at any price." He lives and sleeps alone in a sparse room in the same apartment as his wife and daughter. Contemptuous of them, he provides for them, but he does not share a life with them. He has not seen his older daughter, Paula, since the day of her wedding more than two years earlier, yet he clumsily tries to form a relationship with Bridget, his retarded daughter, whose smile warms him.

In coffeehouses and cafés Bartfuss sees other survivors, with whom he does business and who regard him as a hero; he has, after all, 50 bullets in his body and a reputation for selfless bravery, which may be an explanation for the adjective "im-mortal." Although he has many acquaintances among the survivors, some of whom he knew in prewar Europe or in Italy just after the war, he is not friends with them. They are merely numb players on the same stage. Like them, he protects himself by protecting his loneliness. "No one," he thinks while recovering in the hospital from an ulcer attack, "knew what to do with the lives that had been saved." At times he resolves to dedicate himself to the "general welfare … inspire faith in people overcome by many disasters." After all, "a man is not an insect," he thinks, echoing a sentiment that resonates in other Appelfeld novels. Preoccupied with finding purpose after experiencing the Holocaust, Bartfuss asks another survivor, "What have we Holocaust survivors done? Has our great experience changed us at all?" He answers his own question ironically, "I expect greatness of soul from people who underwent the Holocaust." We see glimpses of an emerging generosity as he begins to show less contempt for Rosa and Paula. We see a generous Bartfuss helping another survivor he knew in his days of smuggling and illegal immigration in Italy, a woman whose poverty renders her dependent upon favors.

Is Bartfuss transforming himself, closing the "gap between his actions and his verbal declarations," in the words of Gila Ramras-Rauch, and moving "forward in the painful process of coming to terms with oneself"? Appelfeld's Bartfuss finds no consolation in Zionism or religion. He is alive, however, and that, says the author, "isn't a great deal, but it's something."

—Myrna Goldenberg

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