‘The Speed of Light’ – the story of the past inside the present
The subject of the Holocaust and its survivors has been explored in literature for more than five decades. Elizabeth Rosner, in her debut book “The Speed of Light,” takes us, the readers, one step further – she writes about the next generation. These are the children of survivors who inherited their parents’ grief and silently struggle with fears unintentionally imposed on them.
“We are at a historical transition point, right now, in which Holocaust survivors with first-hand testimonies are slowly disappearing,” said Elizabeth Rosner, in an interview about her book “The Speed of Light.” “I feel strongly that it’s my obligation as a daughter of survivors to continue the conversation. I feel compelled to explore the effects of inherited grief.”
“The Speed of Light” starts on a Wednesday. The story is set in an undefined place and time. Three first-person narratives, woven together, lead the reader through the innermost recesses of the minds of characters struggling with the ghosts of their past.
Julian and Paula Perel are siblings who grew up with a father haunted by his experiences at Auschwitz, unable to talk about these painful moments.
Julian has adopted his father’s silent grief.
“Throughout my childhood, my father’s ghosts came into my room like a nightmare, invading my sleep, with what he didn’t tell me,” he says.
He lives in a world conquered by anxiety and various phobias. When he is not numbing himself in front of 11 television sets, he writes entries for a science dictionary. He plans his days carefully as uncertainty or unexpected events would destroy what little fearful stability he’s built upon compulsion and retreat.
Paula, on the other hand, a gifted opera singer, diffuses sound and light. Devoted to the singing career, she performs around the world. However, Paula’s singing is just another way to fill the silence, just another form of the “inherited grief” effect. When the silence is finally broken by the truth about her father’s painful experiences, which Paula discovers while visiting Budapest, her father’s hometown, for the first time in her life she feels fear. That’s when she temporarily loses her voice.
“There was no room for my voice anymore, no place for that translucent sound,” she says. “There could only be cold earth, empty graves, ashes and darkness. No rightness or wrongness to any of it, simply the silence of the dead.”
After she discovers the truth and accepts the sorrow she’s been running away from for so long, she not only recovers but is able to sing more openly.
Paula is not the only character that undergoes a soul-saving change in the book. Discovering and especially sharing the mysteries and pains of the past helps Julian and Sola Ordonio, the third main protagonist of “The Speed of Light”.
Sola is Paula’s housekeeper, who takes care of Julian when Paula takes off for her singing tour around Europe. She came to the United States after fleeing her village in Central America.
The bond Julian and Sola forge while Paula is gone heals both of them. Julian slowly emerges from the shell he’s been building since childhood. He smells lemons, opens windows in his room, feels the need to touch and to be touched by a woman, allows himself to break his everyday routines. As for Sola, sharing frees her from being the only witness of the massacre that took place in her village.
“We needed the stories to tether us to the world, sharing them among ourselves could keep us connected to the dead and to one another,” says Julian. “We could live in two places at once – carry the past inside the present. We could travel faster than the speed of light.”
Even if the subject weren’t so compelling, “The Speed of Light” is worth reading for the sensory journey Rosner offers her readers. You can hear the vibrations of Paula’s vocal chords and the murmur of Julian’s television sets. You can picture Sola cleaning a kitchen table and feel the sponge in her hands rubbing against the surface of the table. The book abounds in symbols and metaphors, such as Julian’s science dictionary definitions, which serve as emotional markers for the storyline.
Rosner is a graduate of Stanford University. Her writing, including short fiction and poetry, has appeared in numerous poetry magazines across the United States. After teaching creative writing for 18 years, Rosner recently retired to work on her writing full time. She now lives in Berkeley, Calif.
Actress Gillian Anderson is working on the screenplay adaptation of “The Speed of Light.” Anderson plans to make the film her directional debut.
“The Speed of Light” is available at Verbatim Booksellers at Lionshead in Vail and The Bookworm in Edwards.