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The Iron Tracks: A novel Hardcover – January 20, 1998

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

During the Second World War, Erwin Siegelbaum's parents were killed by Nachtigel, the man who ran the Nazi camp in which they and their son were captive laborers. Now, more than 40 years later, Erwin lives his life on and off the trains of south central Europe, performing each year the same migratory circuit of stations and towns, inns and markets--of friends and enemies, comrades and rivals: "Since the end of the war, I have been on this line, as they say: a long, twisted line stretching from Naples to the cold north, a line of locals, trams, taxis, and carriages. The seasons shift before my eyes like an illusion.... My route is fixed, more fixed every year. Imprinted on my body, it cannot be shaken."

Erwin is a businessman of sorts. Trusting to a remarkable intuition, he ferrets out and purchases Jewish relics and antiques, then resells them to Jewish collectors in order to fund his perpetual travels. But he has another vocation as well, the secret reason for all his years of peregrination: to hunt down Nachtigel, and to execute him at last. Of his tormentor, and of all who collaborated in the attempted extermination of the Jewish people, he says, "As long as they live, our lives are not our lives." And so Erwin makes his annual round, at times hounded by nightmares and by melancholy, at others solaced by the simple beauty of the world in which he finds himself: "I can sit in a buffet and imagine, for instance, what's happening in distant Hansen, how the snow is falling there and softly covering the narrow lanes. Or Café Anton, where they serve warm rolls in the earliest hours of the morning, with coffee and cherry jam."

And so, too, we follow him, ever more fascinated by his concerns and his memories, ever more apprehensive about the possibility of a confrontation with Nachtigel. For the great year has arrived at last: Nachtigel has come out of hiding. If we are ambivalent about Erwin's plan to kill the killer, Aharon Appelfeld will not tell us which of our contradictory responses is the right one. This is, after all, a story about the hopeless tangling of identities and loyalties endemic to the human condition--about how a victim may become a murderer for the sake of justice, and how a man devoted to the preservation of a precious heritage may be more deeply committed to destroying than to building anew. --Daniel Hintzsche

From Library Journal

In this well-translated new novel by the Romanian-born Israeli novelist Appelfeld (To the Land of the Cattails, LJ 10/15/86), a Holocaust survivor is bent on revenge. In his usual spare prose, Appelfeld skillfully portrays a man who compulsively rides the rails in postwar Europe as he pursues the man responsible for his parents' death in a concentration camp. As he greets old friends and experiences familiar hotel rooms, he also collects Jewish religious treasures. Yet the heart of the book is the description of his reflections about the people he has encountered and how their experiences and attitudes affect his inner existence. A beautifully rendered book; highly recommended for all public and academic libraries.?Ann Irvine, Montgomery Cty P.L., Md.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 195 pages
  • Publisher: Schocken (January 20, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805241582
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805241587
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 5 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,948,732 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By kuritzky@buffalo.edu on April 15, 1998
Format: Hardcover
I've found that lately I've been reading many books in translation, something I've rarely done outside of school. But I've discovered that when I read something really well written in translation, the book is doubly good--not only does the author deserve credit, but the translator does as well.
I've also never read an Israeli novel, or at least not one originally written in Hebrew. Perhaps because Hebrew is such a phlegmy and un-poetic (at least in my experience) language and I never thought it would translate well. I was wrong. Given the right translator it all works out ok.
From what I've read, Appelfeld was a child during the Holocaust where he saw his mother killed. Following the war he emigrated to what was then Palestine. Since then he's written quite a few novels about the Holocaust, most--or perhaps all--written in Hebrew.
The "Iron Tracks" is the first-person story of a man who has traveled Austria by train for the last forty years, beginning shortly after the end of the war. He makes his living buying Jewish antiques cheap in one town and then selling them for profit to collectors on his circuit. He lives alone, staying at various inns, and keeps his travels to a yearly schedule. His parents were Jewish communists, both of whom were killed by a Nazi soldier. Every so often our narrator will stay with friends he met in the camps, all the while planning to murder the man who killed his parents.
It's a small novel--very quiet and subdued. The language is quite spare, the dialogue even more so. But it all works and makes sense in a very disturbing and profound way. The image of one man traveling in circles, picking up the remnants of a culture destroyed is haunting. And in the end Appelfeld makes his most profound statement: ...nothing changes.
This is an amazing novel--brilliant in its style and execution, equally brilliant in its purpose.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By David J. Gannon on March 2, 2002
Format: Paperback
Bizarre, disturbing, compelling--a unique voice.
Bismark once noted that "war is diplomacy by other means" but Applefeld would phrase that a bit differently, I believe. Something like "Peace is war on smaller scale", perhaps.
Intrinsically, this book is about the underlying and ancient hatreds and grievances that have dogged central Europe for more than a century and were in essence not changed a whit by the war itself.
Erwin Siegelbaum's parents were killed in the Holocaust, a fate he himself barely managed to avoid. Erwin's makes his living traveling throughout central Europe visiting local fairs and markets looking for unrecognized treasures of Jewish iconography, which he buy's on the cheap and resells to rich Jewish collectors at a premium. This keeps him constantly on the road pursuing his real occupation-looking for the man who he believes is responsible for his parent's deaths so as to extract revenge.
The book is full of irony-Erwin exploits his religion and his fellow Jews for his living to pursue an avocation not altogether consistent with his religion's message of tolerance and forgiveness. He is constantly mistaken for a non-Jew and subjected to rabid anti-Semitic rants of his other passengers whom he also tries to exploit to fine his nemesis. And so on.
Applefeld is an Israeli citizen who writes in Hebrew. Even translated, the pace and mannerisms of the translation yield a sense of authenticity and Old World feel to the text. His prose is concise and spare-yet emotional and evocative at the same time. It all adds up to a very unique and original writing voice.
This is not a happy book-it is stressful, haunting and depressing. It is also insightful and compelling reading. You will finish exhausted and emotionally drained. If that's your cup of tea, then this is your novel.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By taking a rest HALL OF FAME on February 26, 2001
Format: Paperback
I have read three books about the Holocaust in the last several days, 2 that are exceptional, and one that was exploitative trash. The interesting aspect is that the two works that were so emotionally effective, works that left this reader feeling the weight and oppressive horror that is genocide were both novels. They were novels by an extraordinary writer and a survivor of the camps, Mr. Aharon Appelfeld. I do not know the numbers, but I would venture to guess that the non-fiction book which is commented on somewhere on my personal page, will outsell this work 100 to one, or maybe even a higher ratio. The non-fiction work is either the appendage to a lawsuit, or the bacillus that spawned it, either way its type of history is cheap opportunism. The fact the book is full of histrionics, incompetent business documentation, and shrill sound bytes, ensures it will sell. The issue it covers is valid; it's the Author's methods I take issue with.
"The Iron Tracks", is a terribly disturbing look at one man's life to avenge the death of his parents. It is a journey he set out on alone, and one he sees through to its conclusion, again on his own. Like his main character that also survived the camps the Author writes this book because serious subjects, horrifying subjects need to be documented repeatedly. And for those who ask how many books are enough, the answer is there will never be enough, enough of this type. As to the other I refer to the answer is in its specific case, one is too many. Releasing a book within 24 hours of a lawsuit against the company the book is about is the vilest sort of marketing there is, for remember this is about the murder of millions. This is not a topic that requires marketing, Madison Avenue manipulation, and greed to drive it.
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