cover image Unto the Soul

Unto the Soul

Aharon Appelfeld. Random House (NY), $21 (211pp) ISBN 978-0-679-40611-2

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.)