By Melvin Jules Bukiet
400 pages, $24.95
If you've set out to be the enfant terrible of your generation and make a sensation by setting people's teeth on edge, then you had better have the goods. Think of Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, and Amiri Baraka in the palmy days when they raised the roof and took major grief for it.
Not only were they provocative -- these days they'd be hailed as "transgressive" -- they also had intelligence and writers' tools to match their guerrilla mentalities. They were out to epater le borgeoisie, and the bourgeoisie were scandalized enough to make them rich and famous. In his novel "After," his fourth book to date, Melvin Jules Bukiet has given notice that he wants to follow the way of scandal to bestseller heaven, to be challenging and pugnacious and become the latter-day Philip Roth.
Bukiet has wagered all or nothing on a Jewish novel about the aftermath of the Holocaust in which the central Jewish characters are death camp survivors turned smugglers, con artists, counterfeiters and black marketeers, who depend for their living on chicanery, impiety and brazen audacity -- on chutzpa.
Shortly after American troops liberate the Aspenfeld camp in Germany, a squabble breaks out among the former prisoners over redistributed clothing. One prisoner swipes at a jacket that had been handed to another, claiming that it had been his before the war. "There may be ten million
coats], but that's mine. It was my father's and now it's mine," and seizing it, he slices the lapel with a razor, as if for mourning, reaches into the lining and pulls out a sack of diamonds. " 'These are mine,' he says. 'You can have the coat.' "
This is our first look at a world we know little about, that of the just-liberated who had lost everything, including sometimes even their will to live, and been released into a world bearing no resemblance to anything they knew.
Imagine a map of Europe with cities obliterated, boundaries irrelevant, mountains flattened, and rivers ran dry. Imagine only the camps delineated, blue for labor, yellow for concentration, red for extermination, jewels in the helmet of the Thousand Year Reich. In the spring of 1945, however, the jewels were plucked out like eyes by crows from dead Jews, as the gates were opened to the final dissolution of the bastions amid the flux. Two hundred miles east of Aspenfeld, also two hundred south, at a hundred camps and sub-camps, the same kinds of liberation, pandemonium, and recrimination were occurring more or less simultaneously. The triumphant armies of the United States, Britain, France, the U.S.S.R. . . . marched in, allowing fifty thousand-odd refugees to stream out.
The leading figure in Bukiet's story is a refugee Mack-the-Knife named Isaac Kaufman, who has lost a family, save for a brother who has disappeared into the Soviet sector, and has learned to live for the moment and look out for number one. Asked what he wants, he replies: "I want nothing for tomorrow. I want anything you've got, however, today." He assembles a gang, not all of whom are quite so predatory but all of whom are attracted by his dynamism. Isaac and his gang set up shop in the German town of Liebknecht, just outside an Army base that was once the Regensburg concentration camp, and do their business from the town's cafes. Much of the book is just a chase from one caper to the next: repacking American cigarettes with Uzbekistan tobacco or straw, forging passports or death certificates, trading perishable marks for durable goods, trying to corner the European market in ball bearings. There is hardly anything here to ruffle feathers, and there is even a bracing realism to these exploits. Bukiet's father and uncle are Holocaust survivors, and we can be fairly certain that he is retelling some of their stories.
In the main, "After" is only a story of capitalism in the raw, up to the point, at any rate, when Isaac discovers gold inside the Army compound gates, 18 tons of gold ingots "created from fillings pried from the teeth of the Jews of eastern Europe," and determines that he must have it. Suddenly a trap door opens underneath Isaac's simple profiteering to reveal horror and moral squalor, and the reader, not knowing what to make of Isaac, is sent into free fall.
There is also a weird tonal jauntiness to contend with, a note from the music hall that oscillates between Three Penny Opera and borscht-belt apocalypse, and Bukiet sprinkles his story with songs like "Bei Mir Bist Du Shame" and "Way Down Upon the Wansee Riverz" and film titles out of Mel Brooks -- "The Three Stooges Go to the Reichstag" -- as though the Holocaust could be restaged as "Les Miserables."
And one entire chapter, a masquerade aboard a yacht named "Anubis," after the Egyptian god of the dead, is written in the form of a postmodernist hallucination, with devices borrowed from James Joyce's "Ulysses," Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow," and Joseph Heller's "Catch-22," clearly efforts on Bukiet's part to make sure his book is properly "literary." Those pages are both literary and boring.
Sooner or later, of course, everything belongs to Hollywood or Broadway or literature, and remember that "Catch-22" was the beginning of the slippery slope down to "M*A*S*H" and the reduction of injury and death to "shtick." Bukiet's "After" is not quite "Auschwitz: The Musical"; it is a serious book by a writer with muscles and teeth of his own, who needn't tip his hat to pop culture or the sterile "disarticulations" of post-modernism to arouse our interest. His strength is his shrewd grasp of modern history, of the fate of European Jewry, and of the Byzantine forms that Jewish imagining can take.
He comments: The War must have been a novel written by a Jew in a basement in Prague. Jewish writers were fabulists, fantasists, ravers, howlers, messianic dreamers, and modernists whose stock-in-trade was the fractured tense, the irrational development, and the absurd character. They were luftmenschen, would-be cruisers through the air whose feet were chained to the earth.
Bukiet is writing of himself, or the writer he wishes to become, a cruiser through the air with feet chained to the earth, and "After" finds him learning his own style of levitation.