No One is Here Except All of Us isn’t a fable or a fairytale. It seems like a cross between Isaac Bashevis Singer and Gabriel Garcia Marquez but Ramona Ausubel’s debut novel is her own invention—a lyrical meditation of the power of storytelling and an excoriating chronicle of the annihilation of a small Jewish community during World War II.
The village of Zalischik in Romania sits on a forgotten peninsula rounded by a river. The villagers fled earlier genocides in Europe and tore down the bridge to the outside world once they were safely across. For generations they have survived peacefully, assigning the simple roles of the society to individual families, raising their children, feeling safe. Then a woman is washed up on the riverbank by a rogue tide and everything changes.
The stranger is the lone survivor of a massacre, a round-up and brutalization of the Jews in a nearby village. Zalischik takes her in but fear enters with her and they devise an original plan to avoid the horrors of the war outside their hidden enclave. Lena, the eleven-year-old narrator of the tale, helps the stranger to invent a new beginning for the village. The world will start that day and nothing else exists yet—no war, no pogroms, no murderous soldiers or yellow stars. The village agrees that this is their only recourse and the odd experiment begins.
It is really an unraveling, a disassociation, a mass denial. Ausubel’s language is evocative and poetic, the concept of starting the world over—no yesterday, everything new—is seductive. But the reality is a nightmare. The tight-knit community breaks down. All timepieces are thrown in the river because time can have no meaning if it never existed. Lena is requisitioned to serve as the baby to her childless relatives, and her insane aunt—now the “mother” who insists she is owed a child–makes Lena regress to infancy and go through every stage of development until the child no longer knows who she is, how old or what will happen to her next. Civilization is suspended and re-imagined and the results are bizarre; the fabric of the villagers’ lives comes unstitched.
Lena is a strong voice and a character you want to root for. Genocide is a hopeless, inescapable scouring. Stories are how we tell ourselves but this story—these stories are something else, a desperate measure, a reaction that presages a violent diaspora to come.
I opened No One is Here… after abandoning Immortal Bird, Doron Weber’s grief-soaked recounting of the medical crises that took the life of his treasured first-born son. An hour into that book I realized I wouldn’t survive the relentless accumulation of procedures and failures that track a boy’s brief life and his family’s sorrow. No One is Here… was no optimistic replacement. It is exquisitely written and the strings of words are a tangible pleasure. But horror is horror and that particular one can never be beautifully narrated or subsumed into legend or myth, no matter who–or what–survives to begin again.
No One is Here Except All of Us Ramona Ausubel | Riverside Books 2012