The will to live

A Life of the Twentieth Century

By Andrea Belcham

A review of A Life Of The Twentieth Century by Irene Even

Published on April 1, 2005

A Life Of The Twentieth Century
Irene Even

Yardena Publications
$27
paper
387pp
1-894967-45-3

(Reviewed with When Grownups Play at War by Ilona Flutsztejn-Gruda)
While the heroine of Irene Even’s lengthy “fictionalized” autobiography also traverses a landscape of obstacles, she does it without the benefit of familial companionship. Even’s narrative scope is much wider than Flutsztejn-Gruda’s, extending through World War II to a kibbutz in Palestine, immigration to Canada, and a return to Israel: indeed, the “life” examined is really three lives, or stages, each characterized by a loneliness that is often, tragically, self-bestowed.

Aya’s first life stage begins in the Carpathian Mountains region, under the reluctant guardianship of her strict grandparents. Aya, a Jew, finds escape from neglect when her grandmother packs her off to boarding school in Budapest, a place of seemingly limitless culture and learning – that is, until its occupation by Nazi troops. This too-briefly described period, with Aya balancing the necessity of concealment with her participation in resistance movements, hums with an energy and tension lacking in subsequent passages. Luck, and a refusal to grow too close to her acquaintances, see Aya through this tumultuous time, and bring her to temporary respite on an Israeli kibbutz; but Aya’s routine is again interrupted when she allows herself to be persuaded to marry Mort, a “sadistic” and wayward soldier who brings her to Montreal.

Aya’s second life stage, as a housewife contending with her husband’s secret drug addiction, is heartbreaking to witness, and made all the more gloomy by the absence of any confidant. Yet as Aya herself later acknowledges, rather than preserving those dear to her, her reluctance to discuss her sorrow with others does more damage than good. By the time a mental breakdown forces her to reassess her ways and terminate her marriage, her children are already estranged. Her decision in middle age to return to school and begin another life as a teacher in Israel is bittersweet without their support, and Aya’s successes overseas are constantly undermined by her belief that “no one (…) cares whether she lives or dies.” Weak points aside (including the tendency to portray Mort as a two-dimensional villain, for example), A Life is a touching, intimate account of one woman’s search for happiness. mRb

Andrea Belcham lives in Saint-Lazare, where many of her best neighbours are trees.

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