LATE IN “Poland is Watching,” the last story of Jim Shepard’s 2012 collection You Think That’s Bad, the narrator, an extreme mountain climber, describes his ascent up Nanga Parbat, the world’s ninth highest peak:
After any prolonged stay above five thousand meters, the body begins to consume itself. Conditioning deteriorates. Fat disappears and muscle tissue follows. With each moment of acclimatization at altitude, strength decreases. Waking in Camp 4 is like waking in prison after having done something awful the night before.
This paragraph’s cut-up cadence and blunted sentences are meant to mimic the physical deterioration described on the page. The total destruction of our narrator and his fellow climbers comes soon after. As the mountain and its unforgiving elements quite literally consume them, Shepard’s narrator catalogs the sporadic interactions he had with his wife before leaving for the climb, divining those crystallized moments of their love as his mind, short on oxygen, slips into incoherence.
Agnieszka! I want to tell her. The mountains have brought us together, as well. They’ve always been the authors of our development. They’ve allowed us to see what no other human beings have ever seen. They’ve siphoned away the warmth, down to our core and beyond, as payment.
It is an unapologetically blunt exercise in romantic self-destruction: our narrator and his fellow climbers have left their loving wives and children, have knowingly advanced in worsening conditions to reach, at last, the summit, and, knowing or not, their demise in search of some greater unknown.
In 2011, while doing press for You Think That’s Bad, Shepard was asked why he was drawn to the extreme experiences that figure throughout his fiction. “I’m interested in maximizing the pressure that the narratives exert on the emotional situations in which my characters find themselves,” he said. “I’m also always looking to embody that kind of conflict in concrete terms, which means I’ve been increasingly drawn to those kinds of extreme situations.”
Such a predilection might explain the author’s most recent exploration into historical extremes; his new novel, The Book of Aron, follows a Polish boy as the Germans herd him from the countryside into the Warsaw ghetto. Here Shepard shifts from self-destruction as penance for a greater truth, as was the apparent focus in “Poland Is Watching,” to total, illogical obliteration.
The Book of Aron is built like a long short story, starting late and ending early. Shepard relies on narrative tricks and signifiers to achieve typical novel-like depth in short order. Aron’s nickname is one of those tricks. The very first sentence of the novel establishes both Shepard’s dark humor and darker narrative approach: “My mother and father named me Aron, but my father said they should have named me What Have You Done.” Unlike Dickens’s Pip, who names himself from the onset and thus embarks on the journey of authoring his own life, Aron is denied almost any latitude. Though this book chronicles the typical period of a young man’s coming of age — from prepubescence to the age he would celebrate his bar mitzvah — Aron’s story appears as the anti-bildungsroman: in place of self-discovery and pursued destiny we are given only crushing, impossible circumstances. From sentence one, Shepard establishes that Aron never stands a chance.
Aron, we quickly learn, is a slight and short boy from a poor Polish family, not yet bar mitzvah’d, tended to by his mother and ignored by his older brothers and father. He’s a mother’s boy in the cut of all mother’s boys — ungrateful, selfish, but longing for that love nevertheless. Yet, for all his innocence and tragic circumstance, Aron is a conspicuously unsentimental character, both in action and as portraiture. Instead he serves as a sort of proxy, a test for our passive observation of degradation.
Early on, before the truly horrible circumstances become known, Aron, by way of briefly summarizing that state of his relationship with his mother, reveals the underlying preoccupation of this novel:
Neither of us would speak until she finally asked me to try to remain a decent human being and then kissed my cheek before wishing me a good night.
How does one remain a “decent human being” while being swept up in a mass genocide? Though she hasn’t meant to, Aron’s mother has posed an unanswerable question of the very kind Shepard has written this novel to explore.
Once herded into the Jewish ghetto and newly minted as a petty thief, Aron, along with his friend Lutek, records the monstrous degradation in simple, yet stenographic detail:
One night I brought home almonds, but it didn’t matter because some women in fur coats had been ordered to wash the pavement with their underwear and then to put their underwear back on again, wet, and my mother and everyone else had been forced to watch, and she was still upset.
I told Lutek about it and he told me about having come across an old Jew atop a barrel with some German soldiers cutting his hair, with a crowd gathered around laughing. He said all they were doing was cutting his hair and he couldn’t tell how upset the old Jew was but that he’d told himself then and there he would never let himself end up on top of that barrel.
Aron’s internalization and understanding of these events are noticeably absent. These glimpses of startling cruelty are not meant to be understood by our narrator, but only recorded. In this way Shepard provides an upward-looking gaze of unclouded documentation, an uninflected voice through which we can receive the full horror.
Soon enough the lines between right and wrong blur to the point of illegibility, the keys to survival become more difficult to ascertain. Aron takes up with a gang of prepubescent thieves. They rob stores and households, devise plans and set meeting places. When Aron brings home stolen food, his mother decries the moral failure, while his father, grateful for the sustenance, turns a blind eye. Things get worse, inevitably. The lice come. Food rations diminish. The sick fall sicker, and quarantines, first spoken of in panic, become the stuff of knowing asides. As if they were the weather.
“Maybe he’s got the typhus too,” Zofia said, and Lutek said that the typhus was now the other subject he was sick of. Were we supposed to talk about nothing but food all day like him, Zofia wanted to know, and he said that he couldn’t decide who was more boring. All the rich talked about was when they were going to get the inoculation and all the poor talked about when they were going to get the disease.
Aron’s intermittent and unfortunate relationship with a desperate member of the Judenrat further disrupts the possibility of any moral orientation. The boy is deceived into giving some information to the Judenrat that ultimately leads to his friend’s death. Then Aron’s mother soon collapses from typhus and dies on a wooden pallet in the hallway of an overpopulated hospital. This scene too is noticeably short and unsentimental — her dying, like every other small tragedy that happens around us, quickly transforms into a simple fact of life, something to be understood and then dealt with. It follows that in this novel we do not mourn those who die, but those, like Aron, who live.
Without his father and older brothers — long sent off to labor camps with the promise of work — and on the outs with his gang after the death of his friend, Aron finds himself completely alone, an orphan on the streets, destitute, sickly, and near death.
If Aron’s story up until this point is a relentless recording of unceasing moments of horror and inhumanity, then by the time Shepard hands over the stage to the novel’s hero, the nonfictional Janusz Korczak, we are eager for whatever shelter he might provide.
A once-beloved radio show host and doctor, the war has weathered Korczak immensely: he is old, weak, sleepless, and in constant anguish. When he’s not tending to his ever-increasing group of orphans — addressing their wounds, examining their illnesses, quelling their nightmares — he’s tirelessly walking the streets, seeking donations in any form, arguing over and over again for tiny gestures of human goodness. Shepard labors to make Korczak a saint, albeit a complicated one. Pan doctor, affectionately called by some of his children, soon takes to Aron, including the child on his charity runs.
On the way back his legs were so swollen he had to hire one of the bicycles with seats attached for passengers. He asked me to choose the strongest-looking driver and while we rode he leaned over to me and said in a hoarse voice that he was always moved by how gentle and quiet the drives were, like oxen or horses.
Korczak also provides some of the book’s most darkly humorous insights into the unknowable rage and frustration of living for others and not himself:
He read his letters aloud to himself in the early morning when he thought everyone else was asleep, so that night I stopped on the stairs and watched from the darkness […] Korczak held his letter up to the light and read. “To the Editor of the Jewish Gazette: Dear Mr. Editor! Thank you for your favorable evaluation of the orphanage’s activity. But: ‘Love Plato, yet love more the truth.’ The Orphanage was not, is not and will never be Korczak’s Orphanage. The man is too small, too weak, too poor, and too dimwitted to gather, feed, warm, protect and initiate into life almost two hundred children. This great task — this herculean task —.
The later pages of The Book of Aron are populated with similar passages of spare beauty. In the company of Korczak, a man who was promised escape to Palestine time and again but chose to die with his orphans, Shepard grants us these tiny, but arresting moments as a salve. As their fate hurdles toward them, Korczak appears embittered and frustrated. He understands the impossibility of his task, and is all the more human for it. Aron’s childlike gaze again is put to good use in these sections, allowing us to understand our saintly doctor from a position of fear, confusion, and awe.
Korczak’s ability to forgive is as much of a necessity to his children as food and drink. All of them, like Aron, have surely seen and done wretched things to survive. In fact, Aron offers to inform for the Judenrat once again in order to procure Korczak’s safe escape, reminding us that, in all of the period’s merciless privations, one of the greatest was the utter denial of a child’s right to be innocent.
As the book ends, Korczak consoles his frantic orphans:
The child has the right to be. The child has the right to grieve. The child has the right to learn. And the child has the right to make mistakes.
In this way the doctor finds some small foothold in the chaos: if he cannot save his children, he will lead them in grace and calm, to return them a portion of their innocence just as their world, their time, so violently attempts to strip it away.
In taking on this history, the orphan’s story of the Holocaust, Shepard places himself well within potentially disastrous circumstances. As Adam Kirsch recently articulated in his essay “The Age of Bad Holocaust Novels”:
Art that successfully transforms reality, elevating it to a plane of harmony and permanence, can only be a falsification of an experience as violent and inhuman as the Holocaust.
Shepard succeeds because he never wavers from his novel’s moral focus. This is a book about annihilation, and the human spirit that somehow lives on, in slivers and cracks. This is the truth that Shepard siphons away from a history otherwise filled with the chill of encroaching brutality, the truth that renders a work of extraordinary fiction.