The Promised Life
A cathartic journey back in time
Fax messages, monologues, dialogues, descriptions: on the face of it Wanda Reisel’s new novel appears to have a rather unclear structure. Upon reading what the protagonist Vera Aleksander says about herself, however, the reader understands why Reisel has opted for a fragmentary composition: ‘I am an enigma to myself, alien to myself, unknown. I have to rediscover time and again how to fit my presence into the joints of this world. I keep coming from another corner, baffling myself, totally unreliable really.’ The story told here similarly ‘keeps coming from another corner’.
This does not mean that the story is obscure. Vera Aleksander, a woman of thirty-six who has a job rewriting hopeless film-scripts, returns to her parental home that is to be cleared out and sold. She wanders about in her memories and finds the farewell letter from a former house-mate. Twenty- two years ago a man jumped to his death from the top of their house. That was Adler, a heavy-hearted music copyist who had moved in with the Aleksanders, a doctor’s family, and who got on very well with the little Vera.
Before he stayed with the Aleksanders, Adler had been married to Taya in Russia. She had not been able to settle in the Netherlands and had returned to her native country. After all those years things take a different turn for Vera when she sets out on a journey to Taya, ajourneyto the Russia her own Jewish family had escaped at the beginning of this century. The journey is an attempt to plumb the depths of the past, and to find some solid ground in the confusion that engulfs her when she calls herself an enigma.
In a consciously jerky novel like this one, Vera’s story is naturally interrupted by the long digression on Adler, which may also serve as a posthumous tribute to a man who left so few traces behind (he was not a composer, after all, but a copyist). The greater part of his family had also been killed during the war, a burden he had never been able to rid himself of and that finally brought him to his suicide. In 1969 he made a trip to Rome where he walked amidst images of Christ, an uprooted Jewish man who identified strongly with the little girl from the doctor’s family. In the last scene of the book, after Vera met Taya in Leningrad, she hurls a stone high up in the air which comes to a momentary standstill at its apex. The stone symbolizes the moment of understanding and peace she has gained.
That is where all that restlessness had to go.