Dale Eisler’s Anton is a perfect marriage of insight and history. The writing is intelligent; addressing the problems of memory, physical memory, exile, extreme circumstances and lack of geographical identity using the conventions of autobiography. The story of Anton and his best friend is well designed, intensely layered, a refreshing mix of show and tell. Such rich detail! As a reader, I felt as if Eisler reached into my mind and revealed that I already know the universal human truth.
The narrator, Anton, is Eisler’s grandfather, as a four-year-old boy whose first memory is seeing his mother cry, and thus crying too. When his mother picks him up, he “remember[s] the smell of her dress like it was yesterday. We always washed our clothes in a large wooden tub in the backyard and used lye soap that smelled like lemon. Mom’s dress smelled like lemon that morning”. The writing is tidy, sensual; as a reader not only can I see, but I can taste, smell, touch.
This also, being the first day Anton retains in memory, is what he refers to as the day that his life began. “This is going to seem really weird, but actually I was disappointed there were only 12 [bodies in the street]. That’s because I could’ve counted even higher. When my life began, I was able to count all the way to seventeen, which was pretty impressive for a four-year-old”. This book is full of juicy writing, the kind that is so innocent. Eisler shows the shock, the trauma of the situation, also the boy’s pride about counting high at a young age, yet, the complexity that these dead are heads of the local families, his father among them. This is the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution. Time goes by, power is exercised, and what is felt, is pain and exile.
Anton’s own life begins; “I don’t actually remember anything before 11 o’clock in the morning on July 31, 1919”. He is living in Fischer-Franzen, a village in the Kutschurgan Valley, a daughter colony of Selz. There is a refrain during which Anton and his best friend Kaza periodically lie on the ground looking at clouds, or wade in the river, or sit in the tree, or hide in ‘the cave,’ a structure involving two sawhorses and a tarp. They talk all the while, anti-chronologically, in boyish banter; Eisler introduces each boy’s learning process about abuse, death, and rape; this is done with seamless elegance.
Dale Eisler indicates in the preface: “The story you are about to read is more fiction than history. But its essence is true, and that’s what matters to me.” As in all such works, truth is impeded by what has been recorded, what has been left out, and how far history leads, not to mention by the use of words, and the inhibitions of language itself. It is my opinion that Dale Eisler faces this challenge with panache and beauty.
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