The Iron Tracks, by Aharon Appelfeld, is a difficult book to write about. It is a slow-moving read, yet an intense one. It moves along the tracks of time, taking the reader through Siegelbaum’s emotional conflicts. He and his parents were laborers in a Nazi camp, and that is where his parents were killed.
It is forty years later, and we see that Siegelbaum’s life has been focused on riding the trains, back and forth, each year, making the same journey, circling the same route. He has become well known during that time, as he travels through cities, small villages, stopping at the same towns and cities, where he has made acquaintances, and where he feels a sense of tranquility, often in the small rooms that have the bathtubs that he likes to soak in for hours.
As we begin the story, time and place have moved forward four decades. As he travels closer to specific cities and towns on the train, he reflects on his life, remembering past years in those specific places. Time stands still, momentarily as he remembers the women he lusted with, the men he made small talk with, and those who he finds a sense of friendship with.
Siegelbaum admits that rail travel is his life, and that he feels a strange comfort within a train car, and in the buffets at the stations he gets off at. He is able to travel so frequently because he is a merchant of sorts, buying Judaic antiquities in the cities and towns he travels through. He then sells them to collectors. He has become adept at locating the antiquities, Jewish treasures, from menorahs to kiddish cups, to illuminated manuscripts and scrolls. The money received from the sales affords him the ability to travel.
The one thing that keeps him going during his travels is his search for Nachtigel, the man who killed his parents. He is impassioned with finding him and killing him. Does he manage to do so? You will have to read the book to find the answer.
I found it bizarre that he treats the treasures he finds with loving care, yet he is determined to commit an act of murder. He handles the Judaic findings with love and awe, and is dedicated to preserving the items, making sure they go to collectors who will appreciate them. It is his manner of treasuring and memorializing those who were killed. He is not a practicing Jew, but is determined to preserve what little remains of the Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust.
Appelfeld manages with brilliance to capture the emotion that Siegelbaum stifles within himself. He is consumed by nightmares, has difficulty sleeping. He is also filled with melancholy, stemming from not only the loss of his parents, but also his lifestyle. His travels manage to find him speaking to individuals who condone the Holocaust and murder of Jews. This has an extreme impact on his psyche and his mindset. He is cognizant of the fact he is depressed, and realizes his mode of living has enhanced his melancholy, yet he is focused on finding Nachtigel.
Within that focus are concerns he has regarding the moment he finds him. Appelfeld is astute, having been a Holocaust survivor, himself. He knows and understands the wave of emotions that weave a roller coaster ride with the mind and the heart. His insightful prose is not only beautiful, but also bleak, as the story unfolds. Questions arise in the reader, such as justice, and whether it is okay, to murder someone for deeds they have done four decades earlier (considering they have no affiliation with the justice or legal system)? Is the revenge going to be sweet, fulfilling or even freeing? Siegelbaum, himself, has no answers to those questions, yet is still intent on finding Nachtigel and killing him.
Appelfeld uses Siegelbaum’s relationships, ones that last at most for a couple of days, as metaphors for his lack of emotional attachment with women. He is stifled, unable to form a lasting and romantic involvement. He admits that is not what he wants out of a woman. His passions lie elsewhere, such as his finding Nachtigel, and finding and preserving Judaic treasures. The vivid imagery is strong and compelling within the pages of The Iron Tracks, even though it is not a quick read.
Aharon Appelfeld has a story to tell, and he tells it with magnificent prose and imagery. The emotional impact is not light and airy, but one that is often disturbing. It is an intense study in one man’s thought process, emotions (or lack of), and passions. I recommend it to everyone.
January 7, 2012 – 12 Tevet, 5772