A Few Practical Measures: The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard

“A masterpiece”: For a novel to receive such praise no doubt is a publicist’s dream and often enough an author’s too, yet the penchant among reviewers for dubbing a new release with the weighty honorific must raise an eyebrow. It’s a type of soothsaying, really, since who can know what the future will hold, how the ultimate context for the work will grow, except a visionary — and how, in our data-saturated moment, can anyone make claims of visionary insight without a pyramid of spreadsheets to rely on? By dint of overuse, ‘masterpiece’ begins to seem less a marker of gravitas or achievement and more a tired commercial nicety. So it becomes an art of its own, a sense for when, critically speaking, to make such a claim.

Jim Shepard’s seventh novel, The Book of Aron, arrives to just such praise. It’s right there on the jacket copy, a heralding trumpet. Furthermore, The Book of Aron figures as Holocaust fiction, that populous family of stories championed by awards-minded filmmakers and, on special occasion, the would-be literary memoirist. No pressure, but what could Shepard possibly add to the voluminous historical record?

The Book of Aron follows a less than devout Jewish country boy recently arrived in Warsaw. Early on, Shepard’s Aron speaks with comic pathos, the sort known to a middle child of a family doing more with less. A bookish loner, this boy’s emotional horizon is informed by the travails of a younger brother with bad lungs until one day “my father told me to get up because it was war and the Germans had invaded. I didn’t believe him, so he pointed at the neighbors’ apartment and said, ‘Come to the radio, you’ll hear it.’” The utter matter-of-factness of the arriving army is chilling for what we know it will bring. Yet Aron does not know, not right away; he has other things on his mind. The dynamic happens to be signature Shepard, tension between the personal and the political written large — or written close to home. Shepard’s brisk, laconic narratives tend to cleave to a protagonist participating in, but unable to fathom the full breadth of, a historical moment.

No doomy portentous cloud here, no melodramatic gestures at sweeping profundity. Nobody thanks an Oskar Schindler. Even as the real horrors encroach, Aron finds adventure and thrills as a smuggler among a gang of smugglers. Until even the last shred of normality is taken from him, he’s busy being a boy, doing what he needs to do to feed himself. To borrow from Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, Aron tells his story walking.

Like Schindler’s List, The Book of Aron is haunted by a great man, in this case, Janusz Korczak, the pediatrician famous throughout Europe and appointed caretaker for a set of Jewish orphans. Central to the lives of saints, the act of bearing witness — to Korczak, to the struggles of friends and family — is performed by a boy who is not a model of moral purity, even as the occupiers’ crimes dwarf his own. Wracked by guilt, Aron needs to believe in Korczak. And Korczak knows it.

Shepard’s no sap, and his hunger for certified historic fact is voluminous, practically what underlies his entire literary career. As in another of his most impressive works-to-date, a short story titled “The Netherlands Lives with Water” set in Holland of a not-so-distant-future, inundated by relentlessly climbing ocean levels, the characters in The Book of Aron find themselves practicing “a sort of apocalyptic utilitarianism: on the one hand they were sure everything was going to hell in a handbasket, while on the other they continued to operate as if things could be turned around with a few practical measures.” In many ways, The Book of Aron is the wallop of a novella that could have brought story collection and previous Shepard work You Think That’s Bad to a close. (Call it ‘You Think There’s Anything Worse?’) The Holocaust is the Holocaust is the Holocaust, but Shepard’s interests have pointed him in its direction for some time now.

Counterpoised by, say, Primo Levi’s The Drowned and The Saved or Imre Ketesz’s Fatelessness, The Book of Aron brings narrative light to a historical chapter saturated by complete darkness. Save those who escaped before the last march, no recorded survivors emerged from Korczak’s orphanage. Out of consideration for his fame, the Germans repeatedly gave Dr. Korczak the chance to save himself by leaving his kids behind. He would not.

Marching to the train depot, the children perform a rendition of a song called “Though the Storm Howls Around Us.”

In place of the actual lyrics, Aron reports: “I started to sing my younger brother’s name.”

The Book of Aron

by Jim Shepard

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