Written six years ago, and now vigorously translated by Jeffrey Green, the Israeli writer's novel is a disquieting mix of apocalyptic and quotidian, incongruous career jealousies in a time of national blood-letting.
Thomas is in his mid-30s, a Berlin market researcher and director of a major company's Dept of German Consumer Psychology. Twenty-year-old Sasha is a fearsomely ambitious fringe member of Leningrad's brawling literary circle. Genuinely brawling: one author has achieved notoriety for head-butting a hostile critic. Well, it's part of the job.
So we have two focused cosmopolitans, with clear eyes and clear futures. Alas, it's 1938, and nothing will remain clear much longer.
Thomas watches the SS swaggering down streets, beating up Jews, blowing up buildings. Friends avoid or sneer at him. Sasha, in the years after collectivisation has killed or displaced millions, knows that people disappear, acquaintances warp into informers, closed cars - "black crows" - cross the city at night.
Things crumble apart. Both protagonists find themselves living compromised lives in a world where morality is increasingly perverted. Thomas is shunted to Warsaw, where he applies his marketing skills to double-dealing with the Russians, and writing manifestoes titled The Model of the Polish People ... of the Belorussian People. They're actually justifications for genocide. Sasha, working among prisoners forced to dig canals with their hands, edits confessions for the NKVD.
In a morass of doomed relationships and ambivalent truths, they flounder deeper into grotesque horror. Both witness the same savagery: "people arrested, graves dug ... Jewish faces smashed between the asphalt and policemen's boots".
Only the specifics are different. One marries a liar; the other betrays lovers. One finds himself "vanishing, along with the world itself", in a country where soldiers in light coats freeze to death at the front, but families troop to sandy beaches for holidays. The other, trapped in besieged Brest, picks her way among incinerated bodies, "burnt flesh, burnt grass, burnt wood", to stand facing enemy machine guns.
In life as well as literature, Nir Baram has committed himself to political causes; he's a staunch supporter of Palestinian rights within the Jewish state. His narrative anatomises the malleability and fragility of truth, during lives of monstrous brutality and incoherence. Order is ephemeral; chaos is always just a falter away. Meaning and morality are quickly twisted. Unrelenting and undeniable, this is a savage, sometimes horrifyingly comic, autopsy on the warping of once-decent people.
by Nir Baram
(Text Publishing, $37)