Unto the Soul

Overview

In turn of the century Eastern Europe, a brother and sister have been chosen to guard an ancient cemetery of Jewish martyrs situated on an isolated mountain. The endless snows protect them from the pogroms and plagues that rage in the world below, but that same protective blanket cuts them off from their people and tradition. Escape—from loneliness, from wavering piety, and from the burgeoning desire they feel for one another—becomes ...
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Overview

In turn of the century Eastern Europe, a brother and sister have been chosen to guard an ancient cemetery of Jewish martyrs situated on an isolated mountain. The endless snows protect them from the pogroms and plagues that rage in the world below, but that same protective blanket cuts them off from their people and tradition. Escape—from loneliness, from wavering piety, and from the burgeoning desire they feel for one another—becomes impossible.

A parable for our times, by the writer whom Irving Howe called "one of the best novelists alive," Unto the Soul lays bare the deepest stirrings of religious feeling and despair within the human soul.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Appelfeld's dark tale of brother-sister incest is a jolting allegory of faith tested and found wanting. Caretakers of a mountaintop cemetery consecrated to Jewish martyrs--the setting is left deliberately vague--Amalia and her elder brother Gad lead a spartan existence, subsisting on visitors' alms while observing an age-old covenant to preserve this holy site. Once Gad seduces Amalia, they succumb repeatedly to an act they know is sinful, weakened as they are by despair, isolation and liquor. Through flashbacks we learn how Amalia as a girl was cruelly beaten by her unloving mother while her father passively looked on. Her misery extends to the present when she discovers that she is pregnant by her brother; predictably, a series of misfortunes transpires. Gad begs forgiveness, but his belated atonement cannot prevent the slowly unfolding tragedy. Most of Israeli novelist Appelfeld's previous books ( Badenheim 1939 ; Katerina ) have dealt obliquely with the Holocaust; in widening his focus here, he has not achieved the power of his previous works. Although the beginning is suspenseful, once the incest is revealed, the narrative's bleak inevitability does not lead to further insight. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Marking a departure for Appelfeld ( For Every Sin , LJ 4/15/89), this tenth novel lacks any direct reference to the Holocaust, but many of his central themes--faith, piety, guilt, love, memory, and resignation--remain. In this almost fabulistic exploration of the psychic and cultural forces that framed the lives of East European Jewry, Gad (the biblical allusion is important) and his sister Amalia have taken on the holy task of caring for a remote mountaintop cemetery of Jewish martyrs. The summers, with their contingents of pilgrims, are short. The winters are hard, long, and lonely--a time of fear, self-doubt, and excess (both alcoholic and sexual). Torn between his piety and his guilt, Gad faces his final challenge in the form of a typhus epidemic. He is finally struck down and resigns himself with the knowledge that he is ``suffering from the same illness and burning with the same fever'' as his sister. Appelfeld's terse and choppy style reflects the bleakness of his vision while belying the complexity of his subject matter. Not written in a popular style, this work is appropriate for larger collections of serious fiction.-- David W. Henderson, Eckerd Coll. Lib., St. Petersburg, Fla.
Mary Ellen Quinn
Appelfeld's new novel is set on an isolated mountain, where Gad and Amalia, brother and sister, are caretakers of a holy Jewish cemetery. In the cemetery are interred the martyrs of an earlier pogrom. During the summer months, pilgrims make their way up the mountain to visit the shrine. During the long winter months, however, Gad and Amalia are left with no other company besides themselves and their animals. As the years slip by, isolation leads to hopelessness. Gad knows he should send Amalia down the mountain so she can find a husband, but he can't bring himself to let her go. Amalia sleeps most of the day, they both drink too much, they turn to each other for comfort at night, and Amalia finds herself pregnant. When summer returns, the pilgrims bring news of a terrible epidemic raging down on the plain. After the pilgrims leave, Amalia takes sick and Gad carries her down the mountain in a handcart to get help, but there seems to be no place they can go. Appelfeld continues his exploration of the meaning of Jewish history, though this novel does not make specific reference to the Holocaust, as many of his other novels do. The power of Appelfeld's vision, combined with a straightforward style and the fact that neither time nor place is specified, lends the novel a mythic quality.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679406112
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/28/1993
  • Pages: 211

Meet the Author

Aharon Appelfeld is the author of eleven internationally acclaimed novels, including The Iron Tracks, Badenheim 1939, The Age of Wonders, and The Retreat. He lives in Jerusalem, Israel.
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