The Magazine

Washed Ashore

The secret story of how Izzy became Richard.

Jul 23, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 42 • By EDITH ALSTON
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The Border of Truth

by Victoria Redel

Counterpoint, 327 pp., $24.95

In September 1940, Itzak Lejdel is one of 86 passengers stuck aboard the chartered steamship Quanza, docked south of Washington, somewhere along the Chesapeake Bay. The 17-year-old son of a Belgian glovemaker, Izzy is a polyglot lover of everything about America, especially its movies and its slang, and has been testing out a change of names for himself--to Sam, or Jack, or Fred, or Isaac Astaire--when he is approached by a passenger committee as the owner of the only typewriter available, and the one with the language skills to describe their plight.

In August, with 317 passengers, the Quanza set out from Lisbon, away from the war spreading across Europe. On a ragged and uncertain voyage through the ports of New York and Vera Cruz, most have been allowed to disembark, but as the ship refuels for its return trip across the Atlantic, those still aboard lack landing visas that would allow them ashore. Without intervention they're about to be conveyed back to Europe and tipped into the cauldron of war.

With the brash charm of youth, Izzy takes his message straight to the top, writing to Eleanor Roosevelt, known even in Europe for her capacity to redirect her husband's attention toward issues he might prefer to overlook.

Not on board this voyage is the real-life Walter Benjamin, renowned German art critic, translator, and philosopher, who will die in his effort to escape Europe, in Spain, by suicide or possibly murder, by the end of this same month. Never an actual character in Redel's meshing of fiction with the facts surrounding the Quanza refugees, Benjamin presides over the novel as the ghostly arbiter of its truths, and an icon of social and moral loss.

In 2003, Sara Leader is a 41-year-old professor in New York City, working on a translation of Benjamin's essays. A thoroughly contemporary figure, Sara is single and stuck in a dead-end affair, but hoping to break her old patterns of noncommitment by adopting a child from overseas.

Spending her days over her words in the gracious atmosphere of the New York Society Library, Sara now and then walks the short distance to visit her father in the apartment where she grew up. Since the death of her mother, when Sara was 11, the two have enjoyed an easy companionship, and she sometimes stays long enough to share one of their favorite old movies.

A chance meeting in a furniture repair shop introduces Sara to the story of the Quanza through surviving refugees. And the man she has never known as Izzy, she has begun to realize, has not only a past but also a present that she knows nothing about, when the autobiographical sketch required for the adoption process leads her to realize the lifelong unspoken collusion in the many things between her and her father that she has agreed not to want to know.

In her work as well as her life around the city, Sara's thoughts grow increasingly intertwined with Benjamin's, as the tumult of Izzy's journey across Europe with his parents spills out through his letters to Mrs. Roosevelt, rife with adolescent awakening and bureaucratic entanglements, danger, and unexpected kindnesses intermixed with ruthlessness and greed. Threading through both narratives, as the identities of Itzak Lejdel and the aging Richard Leader merge, is the intensifying mystery of what happened to Izzy's mother, Sahra Lejdel, for whom Sara was named.

As little family history as Sara has ever known, she has always believed that her grandmother reached the States with her father. But writing aboard the Quanza, Izzy begins baring the thoughts of a survivor, suggesting to Mrs. Roosevelt what might always be an element of ruthlessness tied to luck; at one point he calls himself Itzak the liar, "who broke a promise to my father." On her way to adoptive motherhood, Sara has found a promising new emotional path by the time she feels the weight of an unspoken past when her father, in an unguarded moment, comments on bureaucratic procedures: "You don't know who's finally giving the stamp."

With the voice of a forties radio show, Izzy is the striving and charmingly ingenuous new immigrant of his time, setting off a few contemporary bells about condescension and political correctness. It takes a while to appreciate the author's choice in this, but the moment does come, when a jaded Sara compares Izzy's life-rattling escape across Europe to the spirit-deadening earnestness of New Yorkers pushing their way out of Manhattan every Friday night through weekend traffic jams.

But spanning events of 60 years, her redemptive view remains remote. No character makes a choice here as horrific as Sophie's, and no list here is as freighted as Schindler's. There was apparently a genuine legal drama in the last-ditch effort made to get the Quanza passengers ashore, and the resistance to helping them put up by the State Department was apparently despicable--a play out of the Playwrights' Theatre in Chicago, Steamship Quanza, has been built around this--before every passport was stamped, finally, with the 60-day landing visa that could stretch into a lifetime of safety. Here, though, such details are only lightly touched on, and the actual role played by Mrs. Roosevelt dissolves in a poetic cloud.

Basing her story on the life of her father, Victoria Redel is concerned less with the transition of all the Itzak Lejdels into Richard Leader than the degree of personal transgression that lies along the shifting border of truth when a child seeks out the real history of her parents. Ultimately, Sara does find what she needs to know.

Edith Alston is a writer and editor in New York.