Monday, March 15, 2010

Mendelsohn's The Lost

I've just finished Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, and am finding it tough to describe the book because it's so good in so many ways. The guiding impulse behind the book is Mendelsohn's curiosity, then growing obsession, to learn exactly how his great uncle Shmiel, and his wife and four daughters, died at the hands of the Nazis in the Ukranian village of Bolechow. So, the book is technically a memoir, as it chronicles Mendelsohn's treks all over the planet to interview the few survivors from the village still alive (out of 3,000 Jewish inhabitants of the shtetl, something like 48 managed to hide from the Nazis and emerge at war's end).

But The Lost is also an extended meditation on love and family, Yiddish culture, and the uses of memory, among other things. The book has an elaborate structure, moving between the detective story focusing on when and where the lost family members perished, his memories of growing up under the influence of his grandfather (Shmiel's brother), and passages in which Mendelsohn compares ancient and contemporary glossings of the first several parashas--the readings from Genesis with which the Torah begins. Yet that structure, though it is explicit, never feels cumbersome or ostentatious.

And the writing itself is gorgeous. Toward the end of the book, when Mendelsohn has made his final discovery, he gives us this:

"I had traveled far, had circled the planet and studied my Torah, and at the very end of my search I was standing, finally, in the place where everything begins: the tree in the garden, the tree of knowledge that, as I long ago learned, is something divided, something that because growth occurs only through the medium of time, brings both pleasure and, finally, sorrow."

Though the book isn't poetry, passages like that are. I cannot get this book out of my head, and I can't recommend it strongly enough.