Beleaguered husband, father, son and eco-waste-management executive Solomon Kugel can hear something in his attic. Is it a mouse? A cat? Maybe even a possum? When he ventures up a ladder to find the source of the tapping and the — now you mention it — weird smell, he discovers…. Anne Frank. Yes, that one. Only now she’s old and wizened and in no mood for visitors. The noise is from her typewriter: Frank is trying to finish a second book to rival her first and she’s not leaving until it’s done.
As premises for novels go, New York author Shalom Auslander has picked a doozy. Not only does it make your jaw drop with its outrageousness; it throws up all kinds of questions — as it’s meant to, of course. Like, why is she alive? How did she get there? How is Kugel going to explain her to his wife and aged mother (who is a fraudulent Holocaust survivor)? Can he, a Jew, be forever known as the guy who evicted Anne Frank?
But it goes deeper, too. Like, can you lay claim to the suffering of your people if you weren’t actually there? Should an ethno-religious group define itself, even partly, by the crimes committed against it? Where is the line between honouring the dead and fetishising atrocities? And if we “never forget”, are we doing what the Nazis wanted all along?
Of course, Auslander’s not answering, he’s just putting it all out there. Make of it what you will. But he’s a writer who’s not afraid to get into the nitty-gritty of Jewishness as he did in his 2007 memoir Foreskin’s Lament, and does again here, in a fable which channels the absurdist horror of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. But it’s not just for effect: these are serious questions, provocatively posed, and also, should you be reading at breakfast like this critic, funny enough to make you snort coffee out your nose.
Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander is out on 16 February (Picador)