In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche writes that when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss looks into you. The Pawnbroker, a novel by Edward Lewis Wallant, is about a man who has stared long into the abyss, though through no choice of his own. The abyss has made a home in his heart, the difference being this is a conscious choice on his part.
Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front begins with a memorable observation;
This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.
I’m not quite sure why, but this came to mind when I was reading The Pawnbroker, different as different can be. I suppose there are odd subliminal similarities. It’s not a novel about a generation; it’s about an individual. It’s a story of survival and death in survival. It’s about a man who survived the Holocaust while all that he loved, all that was most precious to him, did not. He, too, was destroyed; he did not die though nothing of life remained.
The Pawnbroker was originally published in 1961, one of the first fictional works to touch on the Holocaust by an American Jewish novelist who had no direct experience of the event, writing at a time when historical understanding was still at a relatively early stage of development. It was a bold move, almost foolhardy, one would have thought, but Wallant carries it off reasonably well. There is one simple reason for this: it’s not about the Holocaust at all; it’s about a man washed up on a distant shore after the shipwreck of his life. And that distant shore is Harlem in New York, a subject with which the author clearly has experience in abundance.
It is there that Sol Nazerman runs a pawnshop. He is a shell of a man, emotionally disengaged, suffering from what would be referred to in current fashion as post-traumatic stress disorder. His trauma is beyond comprehension; beyond the comprehension of his mercenary sister and her family, with whom he lives, and supports, in the fashionable Mount Vernon district; beyond the comprehension of Marilyn Birchfield, the well-meaning social activist who attempts to reach out to him.
Nazerman, a former professor at Krakow University in Poland, is the walking dead. Behind him are the shadows - a young son who drowned in excrement in a cattle truck on the way to a death camp; an infant daughter that he himself consigned to the ovens; a wife forced into camp prostitution, something he was compelled to witness, who subsequently died in some unspecified fashion, or the fashion that was specified for all.
But he survived with the guilt of survival. There are flashbacks to the past, but Wallant’s real focus is on the present. Nazerman, feeling nothing in himself, feels nothing at all for the suffering he witnesses every day, for the desperation of those who come to his store; desperate in poverty, desperate in simple loneliness. Ironically he despises them all in much the same way as the Nazis despised the Jews. His clients are nothing; they are scum, to use his own word. “Haven’t you got a heart?”, one customer asks. “No”, he responds, “No heart.”
But he does have a heart; it’s just locked in permafrost. Circumstances combine to raise the temperature. The anniversary of his family’s death approaches, a difficult enough time. The business itself is no more than a front for a racketeer, who uses it for money-laundering. Indifferent to everything else, Nazerman is also indifferent to where his money comes from...until he finds out that it comes from prostitution.
Then there is young assistant, Jesus Ortiz, full of enthusiasm, only to be alienated by his employer’s callous indifference to all around him, to the scum swept into the shop by the tides of Harlem. He agrees to take part with others in robbing the store, but when one of the gang produces a gun – contrary to previous agreement – he steps in to shield Nazerman from death, himself killed in the process. It’s the great cathartic moment of the novel;
“And then the dry retching sound of weeping, growing louder and louder and louder, filling the Pawnbroker’s ears, flooding him, drowning him, dragging him back to that sea of tears he had thought to have escaped. And he sat hunched against the abrasive roar, his body becoming worn down under the flood of it, washed down to the one polished stone of grief, of grief.”
“And his aesthetic numbness left him. He became terrified of the touch of air on the raw wounds. What was this great agonizing sensitivity and what was it for? Good God, what was all this? Love? Could it be love?...Oh, no not love! For whom? All these dark, dirty creatures? They turn my stomach, they sicken me. Oh, this din, this pain and thrashing.”
Sadly the author died when he was still in his thirties. I mentioned above that he was an American Jewish writer - and here the stress has to be on Jewish -, for which his particular contribution was recognised. But for this the ending is just too, too obvious, the symbolism palpable – Nazerman is saved by Jesus. He is reborn in the process, a message I doubt that many Jews or Holocaust survivors would accept. Was this his intention? Was this the message? Surely a name like Jesus could not have been used by accident, even if it is common enough among those of Hispanic origin?
There are no answers here, though it makes the ending, at least for me, a little weaker than a think Wallant intended. Or is this really what he intended? I simply don’t know. It’s is a powerful book with a stark message about humanity lost and found. It’s well-written for the most part, wholly convincing in plot and characterisation. But the ending, oh, the ending; depending on your point of view it’s a spiritual high or a perplexing narrative low. Am I making too much of this? After all, what’s in a name? Well, in Jesus, quite a lot. I suppose at least the outcast has at last learned to mourn.
The Pawnbroker is a book for its time and, for its time - and I do stress for its time – it’s a commendable piece of work.