Stories of Finagling and Love
By JOHN J. CLAYTON
I must start this review of The Border of Truth by acknowledging that I’ve known Victoria Redel—though not well—for several years. I recently discovered “A Day in the Park,” Redel’s terrifying story of the love of a dying mother for her children—terrifying because the love is (literally) smothering.Loverboy, Victoria Redel’s first novel, expresses the same impulses. Obsessive love of a mother moves toward death, perhaps the only way to utterly control the beloved. Her new novel, The Border of Truth, though a novel of the Holocaust, is, strangely, gentler than either other work. Again it explores parent-child bonds: longings of a child for a mother, a mother for a child. But this time the child is free to set the rules, even to abandon the mother; and a woman who longs to adopt a child will, by the end of the novel, be ready to raise that child.
The Border of Truth alternates between two different points-of-view. First, Itzak Lejdel. It’s 1940 and this 17-year-old Jewish boy from Brussels writes letters to Eleanor Roosevelt from the Quanza, a Portuguese steamship, asking her to help him to gain admission to the United States rather than get sent back to Nazi-occupied Europe. He tells Mrs. Roosevelt about his flight from Belgium to Spain and his present situation on the Quanza. But these aren’t just letters telling his story and asking for help. He sees Eleanor Roosevelt as an adoptive mother. They’re wonderful, interesting letters, full of the imagination of a brilliant young romantic, influenced by American and French movies. He romances her, he charms her. He tells of being in Paris, of conniving for letters of transit.
Mrs Roosevelt, before I go any further, permit me to double back and apologize for my English, which you will see is not perfect.... As for Yiddish, which was an option, I don’t think there’s much chance that there are many Yiddish translators on the United States government payroll.
I’m not sure that such rhetorical charm as his would be possible in the writing of an actual adolescent, especially one employing a second language, but I enjoy the letters too much to question their realism. I love the young man’s wily ways and foolish naiveté. We feel for him, we love his stories of finagling and love, and we sense, too, a secret pain under his letters. In the middle of the book we discover the source of that pain. In that pain is the core of the novel.
The second point-of-view is (in third person) that of Sara—a New York woman in 2003, a professor in her early 40s, translator of the papers of Walter Benjamin. We understand early that Sara is the daughter of Itzak—in America no longer called Itzak but Richard Leader. We’re relieved, because it means that the boy on the Quanza somehow survived. Knowing what her father went through, we know more than does Sara, for her father never talked about his escape from Europe. Even though Sara’s mother begged him to tell her about his past, begged him just before she died (when Sara was a child), he keeps his past a secret. This is a novel of secrets. The dramatic energy of the novel comes from the tension of wanting to learn, with Sara, her father’s secrets. Yet Sara herself keeps things under her hat. Both points-of-view are energized by secrets. As readers we want disclosure. And yet the novel spends a lot of time respecting the rights to privacy. The reader is, in a sense, made to feel guilty for wanting the secrets exposed. Still, it’s a kind of detective novel, an uncovering of secrets. Sara loved the Nancy Drew books as a child, and refers to them a lot. She becomes a kind of Nancy Drew of emotional mysteries.
I love the relation of Sara to her father. While this is partly a novel of survivors and children of survivors of the Holocaust, it’s also a rich novel of the life of an intelligent, mature, growing, single woman today. The scenes of Sara and her friend Helen feel authentic, funny, alive. Helen is basically what Henry James calls a “ficelle”—a character who lets the protagonist act out and talk out, who criticizes the protagonist so that we can see her more fully. But she’s more than that. In one funny scene at a beauty salon, Helen tells the woman working on her, “Yes, do absolutely everything.” To Sara she adds, “If there’s time after my hands and my feet, maybe she’ll give me a happy ending plus a facelift.”
Sara is trying as a single mother to adopt a child. So we have, in 1940, a child seeking a mother, and, in 2003, a mother seeking a child. In a way it’s America that’s the ultimate surrogate mother. We see its immigrants, Jewish, Central American, seeking to belong in America. But if they need a new, adoptive identity, they can’t help but endanger their earlier identities. That’s why the novel emphasizes names. Itzak is willing to become John, Franklin, Elliot, James, Tom—anything to become an American. Eventually he becomes Richard. Trying to be adopted by America, you can lose your original name, your original parents. This has been a central theme of American immigrant fiction, especially Jewish-American fiction, though usually the parent whom the immigrant must discard has been a father.
Here, Sara seeks her own real father, seeks the truth about him. As the novel develops we realize just how much about her father Sara doesn’t know. Where, we want to know, does her father go when he dresses up? There’s an intended contradiction in the novel: Sara needs to respect her father’s secrets; yet she needs to know the past in order to have an authentic future. We see her collecting photographs from her family and putting them “into an envelope that she’s marked baby.”
This is a work of fiction. Yet there really was aQuanza, a ship carrying refugees, mostly Jews, from Hitler. After most of the passengers (196) disembarked in New York, the ship went on to Vera Cruz, where thirty-five more disembarked, leaving eighty-six bound to be returned, like the passengers of the Star. But through the good offices of Eleanor Roosevelt and against the hostility of the State Department, these eighty-six were permitted to come to America. Victoria Redel’s father was on theQuanza, and unlike Sara’s father in The Border of Truth, he told her wonderful details about his life in Belgium, his flight from the Nazis, his travel to America. Says Redel, in an interview: “The most wonderful form of research came in the form of talking with my father. There was so much texture in our conversations; it was a gift that I’d not planned when I set about writing. For example, speaking of texture, we’d be talking about schooling for a Jewish boy in Brussels and I’d say, ‘Dad, tell me about those knee-high socks you wore with your schoolboy uniform.’ And I’d watch my father as he began the process of feeling his way back into the body of the boy in those socks. ‘Itchy,’ he’d say. ‘What do you mean itchy?’ I’d say. ‘They were woolen and you know they really itched,’ he’d say. It was beautiful watching his eyes then, seeing a man peering back through more than 60 years. My asking gave him the chance to remember the smells and sounds, specific details he hadn’t recalled for years.”
It seems impossible to tell another story of the Holocaust, of flight and survival, of the effect of survival on the next generation. Yet writers keep succeeding. Victoria Redel has succeeded wonderfully by making it the story of an energetic, imaginative boy and a woman struggling to be free of a past she doesn’t even know.