In the tradition of Robin Hood and the much more recent "Defiance" ("The Bielski Partisans"), Ramona Ausubel's latest (and first) novel: "No One Is Here Except All Of Us," gives readers a story of heroic peasant alacrity. In this case, the war is World War II, and the peasantry is the resilient and, indeed, defiant peasantry of the underground Jewish people.
There are lots of things to like in Ausubel's novel. Her powers of description and imagery, with which she is perhaps only a bit too ready to impart to readers, churns out such golden nuggets as cheeks, "scrubbed...that look like juicy, pluckable fruit" and skin, "[like] one map divided into three pages," in only the first chapter, with countless more besides. Practical and authentic folk wisdom scatter the pages, and Ausubel displays her supreme talent of simple storytelling in the form of numerous Biblical anecdotes and perpetuating beginnings. The whole story in fact, is one long narrative of beginnings, from the peasants' mental rebirthing of their world, to the rebirths of character the protagonist Lena experiences. It becomes very easy for one to lose count of the number of times "once there was" is repeated. In a world that's described with childish divagations and a life of bucolic, land-tilling provinciality, the affect of perpetuating first-act-Garden of Eden creation is rather sweet. It also provides a suitable summary of the novel itself, which involves the girl, Lena, and her community of Jewish peasants choosing to remake their world in the face of looming world war destruction.
However, Ausubel begins to encounter problems when she seeks to stray beyond these boundaries into the great, gaping unknown of serious literary venture. It's a rather small, or should I say, standard, book at 324 pages, and yet it seeks to encompass the big themes: discovery of self, loss of innocence, mankind's inability to control his fate, etc. The problem though, is not with the book's length but with which these themes go explored, or unexplored. Primarily, the novel deals with 11-year-old protagonist Lena and her search for self. Yet Lena suffers the same malady as the rest of Ausubel's ensemble: she doesn't do anything. The Carthusian motto: Stat crux dum volvitur orbis (The cross is steady while the world is turning) might be a phrase Ausubel, with her hefty Biblical knowledge, is familiar with. It is a phrase that can be applied directly to Lena, who remains implacable, steady, as the world around her revolves and makes her decisions for her.
Lena doing nothing should not be taken literally, of course. The story slowly unwraps itself in a murky, dreamlike and aesthetic text throughout Lena's life in the village, which consists of her being forced to accept not only the remaking of the general world, but also the remaking of her family, who has traded her to her barren aunt and timid uncle. From here, the whole process of remaking expands: Lena is made to start anew in her crying, crawling, drooling years of infancy to appease the ever-accelerating desires of her aunt, who then insists that Lena grow into firm, marriageable, and of course, child-rearing womanhood in a matter of months.
These are absurdly rapid changes which seem to sit well and fine with narrator Lena, but which continually prod at the readers' perception of realism. The whole charade, from the village's acceptance of world rebirth to Lena's achievement of womanhood, feels like one big game of house, and the reader is only waiting for the parents to come outside and scoop the children back up to reality.
This never happens though, and Lena, an inarguably more matured and confident girl after several months (with apparently good, sporting hips) marries, and bears her first child Solomon. Ausubel's sentiment towards the unrealistic and overly romanticized lifestyle is apparent, yet so is the reader's nagging feelings of the whole village as mentally insane and clinically delusional. Surely these people don't actually believe the world has been started over just because they broke a few pots and said so?
Yet they do, for better or for worse, and Ausubel, rather than addressing these problems face-to-face, remedies everything with the same dosage of cloudy prose, cheerful optimism, and a line that becomes increasingly more bromidic as the novel progresses: "I almost remember who you are."
`I almost know who the characters are', might be a good surmise of the audience's feelings towards Ausubel's diverse cast of townspeople, farmers, an effeminate Italian jail-keeper, and the Stranger, a phantom plot-driver who enters into the novel long enough to spur the weary village into action, and then quietly dissolves into forgetfulness. However, except for perhaps the character's names and sexes, nothing about them separates them from one another. They're all the same brand of unabashedly, unquestioning, and unnervingly kind-hearted country-bumpkins. They're an insipid class of people whom Ausubel chooses to be the subjects of her theme; a theme proclaiming that, like God, the collective spirit of the peasant geniality is omniscient and eternal. One can (and does) find friends everywhere.
Certainly it's a nice theme: a heart-string-tugging, Disney-ified, storybook theme that never leads the audience into thinking that any of their characters will be in any real danger or do anything (rather, be made to do anything) that's not strictly speaking perfect.
The love between 15-year-old Lena and 19-year-old husband Igor is flawless. Infanticide, separation, and genocide are all of them weathered with the same token optimism, the same repeated line: "I almost remember who you are." A relationship between Igor and an eventual war captor struts right upon the very definitions of homoeroticism and Stockholm syndrome, yet the relationship never crests beyond the threshold of anything uncomfortable; the boundaries remain suspended in an Hellenic world of perfect Achilles/Patroclus non-sexual camaraderie. A rape is immediately forgiven, and with compassionate prayers. Numerous child trade-offs (which aside from other things, suggest a myopia of historical repetition) reside in hearts as impure, loving, and of course, necessary. Even Lena's great cathartic moment, one of her first true expressions of self, and her subsequent literal baptism into a world that hints at the suggestion of singularity, is tinged with the promise that perfection will pervade, the world of 1940 being, after all, a very fair and un-cruel place, particularly for the wayward Jew. One almost begins to think of the pre-Gandalf days of dear old Bilbo Baggins and his gang of shaggy-haired settlers.
Despite these qualms, Ausubel has accomplished much with her first novel. Her world is unbelievable, but this is not the point she is offering. Like Jane Austen during the time of Napoleonic Wars, she is giving her pacifist people a voice that does not resound with grapeshot or atom bomb. The story after all, Lena never ceases to remind her audience, can always be retold however the teller wants. This is indeed a beautiful, if somewhat lethargic, world of protector/protected relationships and endless compassion, where one can never dwell too long on the hideous past, and where even the dreamily given images of the suicide of die Führer does not sound bleak and macabre at all, but merely out-of-place. Reality is not suspended; it's gone. And in place of its effluvium, there is a dreamscape, surreptitiously and innocuously leading readers and characters down in a forgetful current.