Extravagant praise has been heaped on this novel by the Israeli writer Nir Baram, who was 34 when this book was originally published in Hebrew in 2010. Among the plaudits from Israeli, German, Italian and Spanish reviewers, one comment from the highly respected Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung made me scratch my head: “Quite possibly, Dostoyevsky would write like this if he lived in Israel today.”
I could understand it if Tolstoy’s name had been invoked in a (clearly farfetched) attempt to characterise this generously paced historical novel that projects the lives of its characters onto a turbulent historical backcloth. Good People is set in Germany, the USSR and Poland during 1938-1941, the years of the Russo-German non-aggression pact. Its main characters are a German advertising guru and a young Jewish woman, the daughter of a dissident Leningrad family.
Good People is a richly textured panorama of German and Russian life and society in the years leading up to the violent (and predictable) collapse of the Russo-German peace pact. Weaving this fabric must have involved a prodigious amount of research. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the vivid details, but I can attest to their effect. This ample novel lives most memorably through Baram’s vignettes of people, dwellings, cities, landscapes and the like that seem to lie, at times, at the periphery of its central concerns.
Those concerns puzzled me. Thomas is an enigmatic character. We learn little about him except that he was once married and has strong but ambivalent feelings towards his widowed mother, who lives in isolation in a shuttered apartment, and towards his mother’s former housekeeper-cum-confidante, the Jewish Frau Stein. A passing reference to Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (banned by the Nazis) suggests that Thomas suffers from a modern deracination similar to Musil’s central character’s. As does Sasha in a way. Despite her urge to find and save her brothers, she too seems to have no convictions, no guiding principles to her life – at least until the very end, where both she and Thomas discover something of value.
Throughout, I felt I was missing something. I have no idea what that might be, but the reference to Dostoyevsky in the blurb kept nagging at me. On the surface, there is nothing here of the obsessiveness or demonic energy of Dostoyevsky – a fervent anti-Semite, by the way. Baram, according to the publicity material, is a member of a prominent left-wing Israeli political family much concerned with the plight of Palestinians. Is there something here, I wondered, which the current political orthodoxy in Israel would find as shocking as Dostoyevsky’s contemporaries found in The Possessed or in The Brothers Karamazov?
Nir Baram is a guest at Sydney Writers’ Festival, May 16-22. swf.org.au.
He is a guest at Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival, May 21-23. mjwf.com.au.