Cary Fagan's "miniature novel" is the first publication by the fledgeling paperplates books. If this is any indication of what is to follow, then a splendid new press has been formed, and in lean times. This slender volume, of seventy-six small pages, with some chapters only a paragraph long, is lovely to hold. The design is beyond reproach. On the cover, a matt brown photograph of the inner courtyard of an old building speaks of survival, humility, and dignity. There is also the allure of a closed, orange blind, a maze of drainpipes, a glimpse of balcony. In elegant balance, as if cut from a white cloud, the title and the names of author and publisher float in front of the picture. Even the paper is pleasing.
Between the fine covers a rich tale unfolds. A few months before Hitler's invasion of Poland, a Christian boy called Joseph is taken into hiding in the house of a Jewish doctor in Warsaw. How has this odd reversal of roles come about? One evening, from the branches of an ancient fruit tree, Joseph witnesses the murder of Reb Mendelsohn, the only Jewish farmer of the district. Moments later, his mother, the Mendelsohns' housekeeper, perishes also. Hearing his mother's screams, he scrambles from his perch and enters the burning house, to be buried alive beneath the falling ceiling and roof. He is found and taken in a cart to the city, to the house of Doctor Krochmal, Mendelsohn's brother-in-law. It is thought too dangerous for him to return to his village.
Joseph stays in the care of the Krochmals until the first bombs fall on Warsaw. The doctor's house becomes his entire world, one he feels tensing and shrinking under pressures from the outside; demands from the poor for the doctor's services are growing relentlessly, anti-semitism is flourishing.
Before the story reaches its hallucinatory climax, Joseph falls in love with the doctor's vivacious, much sought-after teenaged daughter, Chava. And her American cousin, with his new vocabulary and values, arrives from across the ocean.
This story raises two questions for me. The first is, Do we know when we are dreaming and when we are awake? In a scene near the end of the book, Joseph, Chava, and her cousin stand before a window watching a demonstration in the street below. "Chava, this isn't real, it's just a bad dream. And you can wake up whenever you want," asserts the American. She responds, "Maybe you're the one living in the dream, not I. Maybe America is just a dream." Cary Fagan has woven two textures into his tale, the one of a dream, the other of reality. Chava dreams of Paris, her cousin dreams of pistols and easy money. Joseph, torn from his life, wakes into a dream-world where time seems to be at once suspended and hurtling forward. The improbable and the surreal are often present: a Christian sheltered by Jews becomes a Jew, a boy lives in the branches of an orchard, an American flees to Poland, a grandfather climbs on to a tower of books on a roof, a screaming airplane fills the sky then lands in the middle of a city boulevard. On the other hand, every conversation is sharp and precise, bristlingly real, and the details of daily life are solid. As in the most powerful of dreams, we are certain we are awake.
My second question the book is, Who is Joseph? Through his eyes we come to know, briefly, the open roads and ribbed clouds of his earliest years, the fields and orchards. He reveals to us, in tiny scenes, the Krochmal family, whom he observes through doors left open for a moment, and through overheard conversations. They appear before us, joyfully or painfully distinct, alive in every detail, then vanish. We come to know them, and not to know them, as one does the characters of an old tale. But what does Joseph feel? We know even less of him, though we want to know him better.
This tale of disrupted lives is told in the quietest of tones. A deafening stillness reigns. "I hate it here. If I don't get out I'll suffocate, I'll kill myself," Chava confesses to Joseph. "Oh God, what am I to do?" The stillness emanates, in part, from the doctor, from his tranquillity, generosity, and endless work. But it comes as well from Joseph, from the silence of his soul.
Whatever Joseph describes, he renders with a rare beauty and delicacy. His sentences are so carefully balanced that the shifting of one word might cause his world to topple. His young longing for Chava, and his respect and fear of Grandfather Krochmal reveal currents of warmth and resilience within him, but we observe these traits from a distance. What does he feel? Does he miss his mother? Most of his emotions and thoughts he mentions in passing, if at all.
In the end, I am left hungry. Would more pages satisfy my appetite? Perhaps; but I don't want anything altered. The Doctor's House is too lovely, true to itself, and unsettling.
Martha Baillie is the author of a novel, My Sister Esther (Turnstone Press). She works for the Toronto Public Libraries.