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Suddenly, Love

By Aharon Appelfeld

Schocken

232 pages, $25

By Stephanie Shapiro

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Aharon Appelfeld works his customary sorcery in “Suddenly, Love,” – never, I hope, to be a Hugh Grant movie, despite the title’s resemblance to one of them.

Gruff old Red Army veteran Ernst, 70, lives in Israel and is recuperating from surgery with the help of Irena, a nurse in her 30s. “He is pleased when she takes a hint or guesses instead of asking him straight out.” That sets the tone for their relationship. Appelfeld’s literary sleight of hand shows in the spare, even stark, life they live. Yet at the end, they love each other. He has pieced together hints and musings of both characters to establish that fact.

Writing in Hebrew, a language originally chiseled into stone and therefore using few words per idea, Appelfeld nevertheless manages to create a delicate, wispy atmosphere. Credit also is due here to translator Jeffrey M. Green, who keeps the words and sentences short but never choppy and manages to capture the author’s airy images.

Ernst hasn’t had much of a life. A communist party thug from adolescence on, he winds up in the Red Army after World War II and eventually lands in Israel, pretty much by accident. The novel opens with him in retirement from his career as an investment counselor. He writes for three hours a day, novels that he knows no one will ever publish.

Irina, on the other hand, is a mouse of a woman. She was born in a displaced persons’ camp near Frankfurt and moved to Israel with her parents. She has inherited their apartment, their savings and the reparations they had received from Germany, so she doesn’t need a job.

Ernst and Irina don’t seem to improve their communication skills, even by the end. Yet the story as a whole is far from drab. For example, Ernst’s divorced second wife is, in his opinion, so clueless that she emigrates from Israel to Vienna. Vivid scenes show burning schools, Ernst’s first wife and their daughter being marched into an icy river to drown during the Holocaust.

Appelfeld’s method of making connections seems something like building ships in a bottle. Stick after stick is put inside the bottle, flat and at the very end, the builder pulls some strings, the sticks move upright, and ta-da, there’s a ship. The difference is that he leaves it to us to pull the final strings.

Stephanie Shapiro is a former News writer and editor.