Love and Treasure
By Ayelet Waldman
Knopf, 352 pages, $26.95
A historical novel, the Hungarian literary critic Georg Lukács argued, should reach only as far backwards as the era of the author’s grandparents. That is because novelists build not balanced panoramas, but rather individual portraits. Real human beings are unrealistic, because they are improbably idiosyncratic. Only contact with witnesses gives writers the thick detail they need to make the zany plausible. As Holocaust survivors die, this problem becomes acute for its would-be literary chroniclers. In 2004, a little over a million survivors were living, and that number has steadily dwindled. Witnesses are particularly crucial in the case of the Holocaust, artistic representations of which have often seemed suspect; the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas once denounced Holocaust art as turning “the Passion of Passions… into the vanity of an author.” Survivors not only feed the writer’s imagination but also morally authorize it.
This dilemma may also explain the title of “Love and Treasure,” Ayelet Waldman’s new novel, which tells its Holocaust story via precious trinkets. The novel follows an enameled pendant necklace backwards in time, from contemporary New York to pre-World War I Budapest. In between, the necklace travels on the Hungarian Gold Train, a real-life Nazi stash of plundered Jewish property shipped from Budapest to Berlin. On the way, the train’s contents were seized by Americans; they were rarely returned to their owners. The pendant does heavy literary lifting for Waldman, binding the novel’s stories and giving them a patina of historicity. Here, unique works of art and rare luxury goods serve to encode specificity and authenticity. And since gold matures better than flesh, watches and paintings can be drafted to substitute, however unsatisfactorily, for survivors.
The result is an archeological novel, whose several sections are built around the mysterious pendant. Natalie, a New York lawyer whose marriage has recently imploded, is charged to return the pendant by her dying grandfather, Jack Wiseman. Jack, a retired classics professor, purloined it in his youth from the Gold Train, which he had been guarding as an American Army officer in the wake of World War II. But unlike the thieving Americans soldiers he commands and his unscrupulous superiors, Jack is not motivated by greed. The pendant is his only memento of Ilona Jakab, a beautiful and stormy camp survivor whom he loved.