Ramona Ausubel: No One Is Here Except All Of Us (review)

We are all here, our voices said. This is our home, our turf, our valley. We have peed all over it, slept all over it, dreamed all over it, renamed it. No one is here except all of us. (p. 108)

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When I first heard of this novel, I thought this would be something of a 1001 Nights story where the people of a small village gather together and tell each other stories to fend off the impending doom. However, that was not quite a correct impression. Instead, it’s in some ways a retelling of the creation story from the Bible with chapters called The Beginning of the World, The First Day, The Second Day etc.

In a small village in Romania in 1939, war is slowly getting closer. When a mysterious strange woman is washed up on the riverbank and tells about how her village was attacked by solders and how she watched her family being taken away, into the forest, the villagers feel an impending doom closing in on them. The villagers’ Jewish ancestors have been forced to move to escape numerous times and the villagers don’t want to do that again. They have no where to go, no place to run: ‘When there is nothing left to do, and there is nowhere else to go, the world begins again.’ (p. 24). And so they make a deal with God:

Dear God, We did not start again because it wasn’t beautiful before. The world we make will be much smaller and less glorious than the one you made. Ours will have none of the strange, wild animals – no elephants or tigers, no parrots or blue frogs. It will have none of the exotic spices, no sea, no lakes. We are content to accept this small circle of land as our entire universe, so long as we are safe here. (p. 29)

So the villagers start over. They create a new world with their imagination. Two wives switch husbands – and the couple who have never been able to have a child, gets one. In this new world, they no longer have to be childless. The 11-year-old girl, Lena, who is the book’s narrator, has to say goodbye to her family and becomes a new family’s child. But she’s not a baby and the mother is so very much in need of having a baby, so they make an agreement that she is a baby but that she grows a year every few weeks. However, she doesn’t stop growing when she reaches her own age, according to her new mother, so it doesn’t take much time before Lena is ready to be married and move out on her own – and become a mother herself.

The village stays untouched by the war but of course we all know that it’s only a matter of time before reality overrules fiction and imagination. This separates the book into two sections – the first being the villagers creating their new beautiful dream of a life in peace, and the second following Lena, trying to protect her two young children by taking them on the run, away from the village.

I do not wonder why we were left alone as long as we were. Why our village was skipped by marching Romanian soldiers with orders to send all Jews and Gypsies to the other side of the border for the Germans to deal with. What aches in every part of my body is that we did not hear their cries, the lives ending. Death by machine gun, death by starvation, death by sadness. Along we went, our lives day to day, morning to night. A million mothers, a million fathers, a million sons and daughters screamed at once, and all we heard was the good wind shake the trees out. (p. 143)

I didn’t quite buy the premise of this book, the idea that so many adults in a village would get in on this and go through with it. That in a blink of an eye, women are ready to switch their husbands – or maybe I believe that, but I had trouble believing that everyone in the city went along with the fantasy that peace could be achieved like that, by starting over. Still, I liked the book. I really liked it. The story is beautiful and the idea of creating a new world like that is so pure in it’s naive simplicity.

And it did get me thinking about identity and the power of the mind over reality and faith versus knowledge. I guess it all comes down to perception, what you perceive is reality. How much reality do you need in order to believe in something? And what happens when what you believe in, turns out not to be true? When your carefully constructed reality shatters? And if you just keep on believing in something stubbornly enough, does it actually take on a reality of it’s own?

This is a very atypical World War II book. It follows in the tradition of Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful which is about a father trying to protect his son from the harsh realities of a Nazi death camp by creating stories. But even though the focus is in some ways more on the way people handle tough situations and extreme crisis, it has the heart-breaking moments you’ve come to expect from any World War II story on top of the struggles Lena goes through as a young girl, having to completely rethink who she is and what her story is.

I haven’t seen many reviews of this book. I don’t think a lot of people have  been reading it and even though I have some issues with it, I still enjoyed it a lot and it made me think. It touches upon subjects that are interesting for us all, I think, and I really hope that more people will pick this book up and give this first-time author a chance.

What do we have now, he asked himself. If we die, every single one of us? The story, he thought, remained. Once told, it does not ever go completely away. It has no throat to slit. (p. 231)

  • Title: No One Is Here Except All Of Us
  • Author: Ramona Ausubel
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • Year: 2012
  • Pages: 328 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

If you liked this novel, you might also like The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, Night by Elie Wiesel, Maus by Art Spiegelman and The Reader by Bernhard Schlinck that all deal with World War II.

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Elie Wiesel: Night (review)

 “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

– George Santayana

nightThere’s a lot of debate in Denmark right now because some have suggested that Jews didn’t walk on (certain) streets in Copenhagen while wearing a Star of David or a kippa/yarmulke because they will then be in danger of being attacked. It’s strangely appropriate that I should be reading this book right now, then.

I’ve also just finished reading Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones about the extermination of the Jews from the point of view of an SS officer. 983 pages. So I needed something from the other point of view. Something showing the Jews and their suffering from their perspective. Something showing them as the humans they were and are and not as the animals, the Nazis tried to make them be in order to justify the extermination of them. It’s strange that Littell’s book made me think so much more with all it’s many pages whereas this brief book didn’t so much make me think as it made me feel. And it definitely didn’t make me want to think because thinking of what Wiesel writes, is too devastating.

Wiesel’s book is written to bear witness. To tell what it was like to be in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. To tell the world what happened to the Jews during World War II. But in some ways, he didn’t succeed in showing them as humans. Or at least, not all the time. Because what the book shows is that if you treat humans like the Nazis treated the Jews, at some point you take everything that’s human out of them and all you leave them with, is survival instinct. And that is what makes a boy not react to his father’s cries as he is being beaten to death. That’s what make a boy unsure whether the babies he saw thrown in the fire, was alive or not. That’s what makes a boy run and run and run, through the snow and without any food or drink, on a foot that just had surgery. That’s what makes a boy survive being separated from his mother and little sister by a man saying just eight words: “Men to the left! Women to the right!” (p. 29)

Hitler and the Nazis did succeed in making the Jews into animals. They were starved and beaten and mistreated and tortured and used in ways most of us would never do to an animal. And when they were dead – sometimes even before they were dead – their bodies were burned or buried in huge mass graves. Unmarked graves.

“It is obvious that the war which Hitler and his accomplices waged was a war not only against Jewish men, women, and children, but also against Jewish religion, Jewish culture, Jewish tradition, therefore Jewish memory.” (p. viii)

But despite all they did to accomplish this, to erase the Jews from ever existing, they still failed. And they failed because of people like Elie Wiesel. Like Primo Levi. Like Anne Frank. Like Imre Kertész. Like Art Spiegelman. And like so many others. Who bore witness to what had happened to them or to their families. Who made sure that no one would ever forget. And thereby did their part in preventing it from ever happening again. Now we just need people to listen. To read.

And to get people to stop attacking Jews for being Jews. Or other people for being who they are born to be.

It’s hard to write a review about a book like this, it’s hard to rate it anything but 5 stars, it’s hard to write a review about it that says more than ‘just go read it!’

“The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be tomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future.”

– Elie Wiesel

  • Title: Night
  • Author: Elie Wiesel
  • Publisher: Penguin
  • Year: 2006 (1958)
  • Pages: 120 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

If you liked this book, you might also like The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, Maus by Art Spiegelman and The Reader by Bernhard Schlinck, books that all deal with World War II, or One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn about being in a death camp/labor camp.

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