Efraim's Book by Alfred Andersch
All the great voyagers return
Homeward as on an arc of thought;
Home like a ruby beacon burns
As they crest wind, scale wave, soar air;
All the great voyagers return,
Though we who wait never have done
Fearing the piteous accidents,
The coral reef sharp as the bones
It has betrayed, fate’s cormorant
Unleashed, whose diving’s never done.
Even the voyager of mind
May fail beneath behemoth’s weight;
Oh, the world’s bawdy carcass blinds
All but the boldest, rots the sails
And swamps the voyaging of the mind.
But all the great voyagers return
Home like the hunter, like the hare
To its burrow; below, earth’s axle turns
To speed their coming, the following fair
Winds bless their voyage, blow their safe return.
“Silent lies the lake,” remarks the narrator at one point in this troubling, digressive, often oddly humorous 1967 novel by German author, Alfred Andersch. “What have I come here for? I have no news story, no feature for the news telephones. Then what am I doing here?” Set largely in post-war Berlin, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Efraim’s Book tells the story of English newspaper reporter, Georg Efraim, a disaffected German Jew who, having been sent into exile during the war, has finally returned to the scarred, still-haunted city of his birth. Ostensibly sent to Berlin to find out if morale there was high or low, he also returns there to search for clues as to the whereabouts of a Jewish girl gone missing during the war, his former Berlin neighbor and current London editor’s estranged and illegitimate daughter, Esther Bloch.
The city Georg finds is drably, un-poignantly familiar to him: the river, the rain, an old synagogue in ruins. Even his return to No. 12 Bismarckstrasse, the house in which he was born and had lived as a boy, is profoundly anti-climactic. Hoping, without malice (‘I didn't come here to look for murders. I don’t hate anybody.’), to meet the people who took possession of the house after the arrest and deportation of his parents, he is disappointed when the woman of the house, the wife of a geologist and professor named Heiss, declares frankly, as if she’d been expecting him all along, “You’d like to visit the house. Do come in.” Of course the Heiss family is not the family that displaced his own, having taken possession of the house only years later—after a string of tenants and refugees—in 1948. Embarrassed, indifferent somehow, Georg feels compelled to reassure her:
“Don't take it to heart,” I say in an attempt to smooth things over. I almost manage to laugh. “It’s always been that way, in every period of history, people losing their homes, their property being divided up as spoils, other people moving in as victors, and so on.”
While surely Frau Heiss is surprised by his reaction of his, the reader herself is not, as even by this early stage in the novel she knows this hero well, at least well enough to appreciate, if not expect, such anguished and cynical twists. Still, and for all the narrator’s candor in these pages, this ‘man without qualities’ remains elusive—difficult, if not finally impossible to know. While a naturalized British subject, Georg Efraim feels neither English nor German nor Jewish even, except to the extent that he is bound to the race by recent history, by the murder of his parents at Auschwitz as Jews. His is a world governed by chaos, a world ruled not by God or fate or logic but by randomness alone. There is not a trace of history or faith in him, nothing but the cold, blunt recognition of chance:
It’s pure chance twenty years ago Jewish families were exterminated, and not other families twenty years before that, or later, or now, for example… In half an hour Frau Heiss and her daughters will be sitting down to lunch. They could just as well be dragged out of their house and murdered…
Or so it seems. Not long after this scene, and despite his friends’ insistence upon the very particularity of Hitler’s dream, its stringent, naked rationality, Georg reflects, “It makes no difference where one lives, what one does, who one is.” Of course—and this proves one of the virtues of this novel—it is a cynicism without passion, too wooden, too hollow to believe. Sure enough the motives for his return to Berlin are more complex, more muddied than even he himself seems willing to believe. A newspaperman on assignment, yes, a friend determined to discover the fate of his editor’s daughter, surely, yet his return to Berlin is motivated first and foremost, so the reader learns in time, by his vexing desire to write a book, which he does—a novel about his life, no less! Were that not enough he is writing it (the very story the reader is reading, what the narrator belittles as ‘a certain arrangement of signs’) in German, a language he hasn’t spoken, let alone written, in years. And so the plot thickens.
Yet there is still another layer to the complexity of this novel, one far from intentional. In the end, what is perhaps most intriguing about this engaging, if imperfect tale, is author Alfred Andersch’s often bumbling and transparent struggle to come to terms—long after the fact—with his own complicity as a German during Hitler’s reign. While briefly interned in Dachau for his Communist sympathies, he—like his fellow Group 47 members, Heinrich Boll and Gunter Grass—spent the war years living comfortably in Germany, if perhaps grudgingly, working and writing unmolested in what, following the war, Andersch defined dubiously as a state of ‘internal emigration’: “I could have emigrated,” he said, “but I did not. To go into internal emigration under a dictatorship is the worst alternative of all.” It was an assertion, a claim, that did not sit well with many of his compatriots, most notably the writer W.G. Sebald who takes him to task in his illuminating essay “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” At the heart of Sebald’s criticism is what he views as Andersch’s all-but-blind ambition as a writer during the war, a literary avariciousness, a moral and artistic failure, that is only highlighted, compounded, by his efforts in Efraim’s Book. If indeed Andersch was opposed to the Nazis, particularly to their treatment of the Jews, what, wonders Sebald, could have induced him to stay?
Peter Adam Nash