One From the Archive: ‘I Am Forbidden’ by Anouk Markovits ****

First published in July 2012.

I Am Forbidden is the first of Anouk Markovits’ books to be written in English. The novel opens in Szatmár, Transylvania, on the eve of the ‘five un-photographable years’ of the Second World War. We are introduced to the character of Zalman Stern, a very devout Jew, who was ‘not only a wonder of Torah knowledge, he also had the most beautiful voice east of Vienna’.

The second chapter then focuses on a young Jewish boy named Josef Lichtenstein and his baby sister, Pearela. His mother and sister are brutally murdered in his home by a smith ‘who often bragged about joining the Romanian Iron Guard’. He is rescued by the family’s housekeeper, a Christian woman named Florina, who tells him: ‘Your name is Anghel. Your father left for the Odessa front before you were born. You are my son’.

The violent and brutal occurrences throughout are made even more shocking by the sometimes deceptively simple prose which Markovits uses. When Josef as a young boy sees a pregnant woman killed and her husband tortured, the author states: ‘it was impossible to see; it was impossible not to see, where the legs met, the split flesh where blood spurted through crusted blood’. The couple have a young girl named Mila with them, whom they instruct to ‘go to Zalman Stern’, an old friend of theirs, to be looked after.

When Mila finds the family, four-year-old Atara, Zalman’s eldest daughter, befriends her. The girls are just a year apart in age and, despite not being related, they form a sisterly bond with one another. Both Mila and Atara, segregated in a world in which books are forbidden, struggle against aspects of their faith which both taunts and hurts them. Atara becomes rebellious, going against what she knows she should be doing.

The characters merge and drift apart in interesting ways. Josef, ‘the boy with the wood-nettle eyes’, is taken from Florina by Zalman Stern, and is swiftly restored to the status of a practicing Jew again. He is consequently sent to a ‘holy community’ in the United States. Throughout, the reader feels much sympathy for the majority of the characters but Zalman Stern, who believes that ‘it was essential for children to fear their father so they would grow into God-fearing Jews’, is not a likeable individual in any way. He is cruel to his family, preferring to uphold Jewish laws and punish even those who innocently and naïvely go against them.

Markovits has used a third person omniscient perspective throughout, which allows her to follow more than one character at any time. The narrative style has been very well constructed, and the use of the narrative voice itself is certainly one of the novel’s strengths. Her writing is often descriptive – leaves are ‘flame shaped and autumn red’ and the eyes of the religious icons are described as ‘furry bees’. The balance of long and short sentences has been well thought out, and Markovits is able to build up strong passages of tension and unease whilst using this technique. This is particularly true with regard to the first few pages in the novel, in which the following passage occurs: ‘Soldiers. A tug on Zalman’s sleeve. Two more buttons snapped. A muzzle lifted his hat.

The history of the period, from the Holocaust up until the present day, has been woven into I Am Forbidden, which gives the novel a wider sense of place and allows the story to be historically grounded throughout. Moral questions regarding Judaism have also been included throughout the text. ‘Must a Jew repent for smothering a crying infant if it was done to protect other lives?’ is perhaps the most harrowing.

I Am Forbidden is an incredibly sad and poignant novel in which death and destruction find prominence. The story is incredibly engrossing and absorbing, and as violent as it is moving. The storyline itself an unpredictable one, filled with twists and turns at every juncture, rendering it impossible to guess in which direction it will lead the reader. I Am Forbidden provides a real insight into Judaism and secular society, and the characters and storyline merge to create an unforgettable novel.

Purchase from the Book Depository

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