As if a kvetching mother, an irate tenant, a sickly child and a neighbourhood arsonist were not enough to contend with, Solomon Kugel – a young Jewish professional who has relocated his family from the city to the countryside – discovers that Anne Frank is living in his attic.
That’s right, Shalom Auslander’s debut novel Hope: A Tragedy imagines the famous diarist alive and not so well in a farmhouse in upstate New York. Hunchbacked and haggard, she is tapping away on the script for a book she hopes will match the success of her diary. ‘I’m a writer! Thirty-two million copies, Mr Kugel, that’s nothing to sneeze at!’
Understandably, Kugel at first doubts the authenticity of the old woman’s claim and counters that Anne Frank died in Auschwitz. Suggesting otherwise, Kugel admonishes, is an insult to the millions of victims of Nazi brutality. Anne Frank replies: ‘It was Bergen-Belsen, jackass.’ She rolls up her sleeve, revealing the concentration-camp numbers tattooed on her arm. ‘And as for the relatives you lost in the Holocaust? Blow me.’
Kugel – a name rich in Borscht-Belt shtick – moved his family to the nondescript town of Stockton with hopes of escaping the stresses of city life and the weight of the past. But instead, the past moved in with him. Apart from the ‘high maintenance’ Anne Frank, there’s Kugel’s mother – a misery-wallowing lady who’s haunted by memories of the Holocaust despite having been spared its horrors as a Brooklynite who summered in the Catskills. Kugel’s wife Bree threatens to take off unless he kicks both the real and the fake genocide survivors out.
The most hilarious moment in the novel – and there are many – comes when Kugel confesses to Bree that the mysterious tapping sound that keeps them up at night, and the foul smell which they’ve struggled to get rid of, emanate from the most iconic of all Holocaust victims. At the end of the ensuing shouting match, Kugel is defiant: ‘I’m not throwing Anne fucking Frank over my shoulder, kicking and screaming, and dropping her on the front lawn of my house, I’m sorry, I’m just not doing it… Anne Frank is dead, said Bree. I wish, said Kugel.’
Auslander’s portrait of Anne Frank as a gruff, foul-mouthed old woman eating rodents and vomiting into vents takes irreverence to a new level. But irreverence is not the end of Hope: A Tragedy. Yes, this is a comic Holocaust story littered with Jewish humour tropes – Kugel is a hypochondriac freier who sees a therapist, after all. Yet it is also a serious novel about how to remember the past, about the abuse of history, about the sanctification of suffering, and about the unhappiness of those hopeful people for whom life always falls short of its promises.
Kugel’s analyst, Professor Jove, has a sign in his office that says ‘Give Up, You’ll Live Longer’ and contends that Hitler was ‘the most unabashed doe-eyed optimist of the last hundred years… Have you ever heard of anything as outrageously hopeful as the Final Solution?’ To hope is to set oneself up for a fall; that is Professor Jove’s miserablist philosophy. Just look at Anne Frank. And look at all those people who repeat, after each atrocity, the mantra ‘Never Again’.
Luckily, there can only be one Holocaust, but how we are to remember it is a persistent cause of tension. ‘I think never forgetting the Holocaust is not the same as never shutting up about it’, Anne Frank tells Kugel, whose overbearing mother insists that a lampshade labelled ‘Made in Taiwan’ and a bar of soap labelled ‘Ivory’ are her murdered relatives.
Holocaust remembrance often has as much to do with satisfying a need for self-victimisation and with championing personal causes as it does with honouring the memory of those who suffered. And it can seem that the more we talk about the Holocaust, and the more we compare contemporary events to it, the further we get from grasping what sets each of those events apart and what they really entailed. Auslander captures this narcissism and this contradiction brilliantly. When Kugel orders books about Anne Frank’s diary from Amazon, the website suggests he might also like books about Rwanda, Pol Pot and starvation in the Ukraine.
The fate of Anne Frank’s diaries epitomises these pitfalls of Holocaust remembrance. It is no wonder that her writing, and tragic end, have touched so many, but her writings have also been used to impart lessons on everything from racism to bullying – issues that have nothing to do with the young girl herself. She has become a kind of holy symbol, a patron saint of the Holocaust. As the fictional, older version of Anne Frank says in Hope: A Tragedy: ‘I’m the dead girl. I’m Miss Holocaust, 1945. The prize is a crown of thorns and eternal victimhood. Jesus was a Jew, Mr Kugel, but I’m the Jewish Jesus.’
Auslander’s mordant humour will undoubtedly come across as offensive to some, but it is in no way flippant. At a storytelling evening in New York earlier this year, he told of bursting out in laughter at the end of a stressful visit to a concentration camp. And at the gates inscribed with those famous cruel words, Arbeit Macht Frei, he thought: ‘No, laughter sets you free’. Read Hope: A Tragedy and you will know what he means.