As if a kvetching mother, an irate tenant, a sickly child and a neighbourhood arsonist were not enough to contend with, Solomon Kugel – a young Jewish professional who has relocated his family from the city to the countryside – discovers that Anne Frank is living in his attic.
That’s right, Shalom Auslander’s debut novel Hope: A Tragedy imagines the famous diarist alive and not so well in a farmhouse in upstate New York. Hunchbacked and haggard, she is tapping away on the script for a book she hopes will match the success of her diary. ‘I’m a writer! Thirty-two million copies, Mr Kugel, that’s nothing to sneeze at!’
Understandably, Kugel at first doubts the authenticity of the old woman’s claim and counters that Anne Frank died in Auschwitz. Suggesting otherwise, Kugel admonishes, is an insult to the millions of victims of Nazi brutality. Anne Frank replies: ‘It was Bergen-Belsen, jackass.’ She rolls up her sleeve, revealing the concentration-camp numbers tattooed on her arm. ‘And as for the relatives you lost in the Holocaust? Blow me.’
Kugel – a name rich in Borscht-Belt shtick – moved his family to the nondescript town of Stockton with hopes of escaping the stresses of city life and the weight of the past. But instead, the past moved in with him. Apart from the ‘high maintenance’ Anne Frank, there’s Kugel’s mother – a misery-wallowing lady who’s haunted by memories of the Holocaust despite having been spared its horrors as a Brooklynite who summered in the Catskills. Kugel’s wife Bree threatens to take off unless he kicks both the real and the fake genocide survivors out.
The most hilarious moment in the novel – and there are many – comes when Kugel confesses to Bree that the mysterious tapping sound that keeps them up at night, and the foul smell which they’ve struggled to get rid of, emanate from the most iconic of all Holocaust victims. At the end of the ensuing shouting match, Kugel is defiant: ‘I’m not throwing Anne fucking Frank over my shoulder, kicking and screaming, and dropping her on the front lawn of my house, I’m sorry, I’m just not doing it… Anne Frank is dead, said Bree. I wish, said Kugel.’