The Travels of Daniel Ascher
How well do we ever really know another person?
In Days in the History of Silence (Merethe Lindstrom), a man dealt with the legacy of the Holocaust by not speaking. In Diary of the Fall, a grandfather dealt with the legacy of the Holocaust by recording false memories of his past in a diary. In The Travels of Daniel Ascher, a great-uncle deals with the legacy of the Holocaust by fictionalizing his present, writing adventure stories as allegories for his past.
The written word has the capacity to be powerful. It has the power to hide us and it has the power to reveal us. It also has the power to save us.
Most people live their life before they write about it. But most people are not Holocaust survivors. In The Travels of Daniel Ascher, a wonderful novel written by Deborah Levy-Bertherat, Daniel Roche not only survived the Holocaust, he has become the successful writer of a famous series of adventure stories for children. The Black Insignia series, written under the pseudonym H. R. Sanders, is as famous in France as Tintin or the stories of Le Petit Nicolas.
Helene Chambon, Daniel’s great-niece, lives in Daniel’s apartment in Paris while she is studying archeology at university. She has grown up with the legend of her world-traveling great uncle, but also with the knowledge that Daniel is considered something of a black sheep within the family.
Daniel is hardly ever at home, always traveling to gather background for his novels, and Helene begins to discover that she really does not know him at all. She knows that Daniel is not her biological uncle, but was a Jewish orphan adopted by her great-grandparents, and that his birth name was Daniel Ascher. She finds out that his neighbors know him far better than most of his family members. She discovers that Daniel grew up in an apartment block close to where she is living now. She discovers that shopkeepers know him as Daniel Ascher, not Daniel Roche. She discovers that Daniel had a sister. She discovers that he has relatives in America, and that he had visited them after the war.
Helene begins to wonder exactly why her family considers Daniel to be a bit of a black sheep, and she digs deeper into his past, as though it were an archeological dig. The clues are there, if she can only follow them. The clues are like one of those Russian matryoshka dolls, with each layer revealing yet another layer. Objects are physically hidden in other objects. Objects also assume other meanings. Photographs are not what they seem. Names are not what they seem. Words have more than one meaning. Biblical references abound. There are stories within stories. And a scrap of yellowed paper written in Hebrew may hold the key to everything, if only Helene could read it. As Helene discovers Daniel’s hidden past, she begins to question how much of his present life is true. Daniel’s history in the Roche family is revealed in an explosive family scene. But it is a small book that fills in all the unanswered questions about Daniel’s past; a small book, that in my mind at least, resembles one of the beautiful books of Peter Sis.
Daniel comes to terms with his past by letting it go. He begins to live the life that he has been writing about all these years, the life that everyone thought he had been living.
I read this novel in a day, in my pajamas, without leaving the sofa. I would recommend the same for anyone who reads The Travels of Daniel Ascher.