The Owl and Other Stories, by John Auerbach; Tales of Grabowski, Transformations, Escape, and Other Stories, by John Auerbach

Article excerpt, 2003. 306 pp. $19.95., 2003. 307 pp. $19.95.

Name that writer: Polish, fluent in a number of languages, sea captain. If you answered Conrad, you're in the same ocean. And John Auerbach deserves just as much attention. Toby Press has brought out some of Auerbach's work in two collections: The Owl and other Stories, and Tales of Grabowski, Transformations, Escape, and Other Stories (both 2003). The latter is vastly autobiographical, as Grabowski, a Polish soldier, plods through World War II under an assumed identity, working within the German merchant marine. Auerbach's character, Grabowski, declines, mentally. He loses himself in his alter-ego escapee. His will to do something worthwhile -- to fight in the war against Germany, leads him to try to escape. The author himself felt that he had done some part to advance the war, like many other people. But his character Grabowski is mentally lacking, a Bartleby, after his six months in jail for stealing a boat in his attempted escape. He gets beaten up repeatedly because the Gestapo handler, Miller, keeps trotting him in front of the police and demanding that something be done. When Grabowski succumbs in a shipwreck, Miller survives only by holding onto Grabowski's corpse. Then Miller himself expires, as his reason for living is, seemingly, gone. It's as though Grabowski is a synechdochal stand-in for all of Judaism: Auerbach presents the notion of teleological murder: if you succeed in killing what you label -- unjustly -- abhorrent, you kill your reason to live as well. It's a justice, but justice that costs horribly.

Do you want to read such tales? From Auerbach's life itself you are compelled. Auerbach escaped from the Warsaw ghetto. During the war he provided military intelligence as best he could. Having survived the war, including a stint in prison camp, he dwelled among the enemy, then escaped. He ran the British blockade -- for three years -- until the British held him in Cyprus for two years. Later he captained a fishing boat from Kibbutz Sdot Yam, before serving in the Israeli Merchant Marines for another fifteen years. Auerbach is a real-life counterpart to the fictional characters in Mark Helprin's Refiner's Fire. The epic scope of his experiences nearly defies capture in writing. And, in fact, his characters, in their mariner's alcoholism, are frequently attempting to escape just such responsibility.

For it seems a responsibility, an accountability that literature itself thrusts upon the human mind. One who writes is taking up the challenge of literature to respond to the unanswerable questions. How can one capture, render, or usefully present a life that is like a sprint through the human house of horrors -- a run that lasts a lifetime? …


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