Format: 224 pp., paperback; Size: 5.25″ x 8″; Price: $16.95; Publisher: Transit Books; Number of People-Swallowing Pits in the Book: 2; Most Unexpected Celebrity Mentioned: Tim Roth; Number of Previous Books by Author: 3; Clause on Back of Book: “Axiomatic introduces an unforgettable voice”; Representative Passage: “One of the things about coming to this world from the Eastern European elsewhere (not that it matters much which elsewhere the elsewhere is) is that words do not often feel powerful in the world of Australia we’ve come to. Which is fine really. We have made our peace with this, accepted it, with gratitude almost, because we judged the well-known (to us) alternative—a world in which poets and their families were persecuted and killed for their words mattering too much—to be an evil much greater. But perhaps I was wrong about this new world. Looking in all the wrong places perhaps.”
Central Question: How do we survive suffering?
Social critic Maria Tumarkin’s latest book, Axiomatic, is an elusive text. It’s fast, cunning and painfully intelligent. While reading, I found the force of Maria Tumarkin’s project mesmerizing. In trying to talk about the book, analysis fails. What has she done? How did she do it? Unclear; better read it again.
Axiomatic is about time, death, and trauma. Those are large topics—big enough to befuddle a lesser writer, or make her turn to particularity as a way to make sense. Instead, Tumarkin fractures her topics into small enough pieces that she can reassemble them in kaleidoscopic fashion, allowing for a shifting, colorful, and holistic approach to her subjects. Each of the five essays in Axiomatic is obliquely titled after a cliché about time—“History repeats itself,” “You can’t enter the same river twice,” et cetera. Each focuses on a different cluster of case studies and ideas, although the book never exactly cordons its ideas behind its sections.
These essays are linked by dizzying lines of flight, interlinking inquiries that connect disparate topics—parenting, suicide, kidnapping, and myriad others—into an exploration of history, memory, and time. Axiomatic spools out its specific, insightful view of life on earth one complex paragraph at a time, but the rebar of its endeavor is storytelling. It’s not the safe, simply patterned storytelling we are accustomed to, but a kaleidoscopic set of interwoven threads, from an O. Henrian story of young Russians researching their families, to the rise and fall of Australian food entrepreneuse Nahji Chu, to dozens of Tumarkin’s own personal anecdotes. It’s all stories, tiny stories, arranged in complicated designs, laced with insight and fact.
The collection’s second essay, “Those who forget the past are condemned to re—,” concerns a bizarre grandparental kidnapping: after her son was killed in a road accident, a woman who was born in Poland in 1943 and became a naturalized Australian hid her grandson in her home for four months. The grandmother secreted the boy in a furnished room (he was warm and well-fed, in no danger) and told the police she had no idea where he was. When the kidnapping was discovered, she went to jail, and the boy was returned to his mother, who was living with a new, criminal boyfriend.
Tumarkin perceives echoes of the Holocaust in this story. As a toddler, the grandmother, hid with her mother in a potato pit to escape the Nazis. Tumarkin connects this hiding with the grandson’s kidnapping—the insecurity of the grandmother’s earliest memory causes her to reenact her trauma on another child, perhaps. This points to Tumarkin’s overarching concern with how the past haunts the present, and how the ugliest events of one century linger well into the next. “The remembering she does, which the world around her sees as her trauma taking over, her soul ulcer screaming out, could it be that this remembering is what this country needs? Not the pomp of it, brass bands and hands over heart, but the horror of it that lives under the skin of a culture.” The possibilities of this analysis stretch far into the distance, but Tumarkin leaves it to us to try and answer her questions.
The Holocaust appears repeatedly—I suspect because it is one of the primary world-wounds of the 20th century, but also potentially because Tumarkin persistently interrogates her Jewishness throughout the book, in moods ranging from humorous to tragic. Sometimes she uses Jewish ideas as metaphors, such as the Kabbalah concept of “breaking of the vessels,” apparent in the art of Anselm Kiefer, astronomy, and life itself: “We are the broken vessels containing, spilling all over the place, those who came before us.” This quote concludes a subsection about parenting in “History repeats itself,” and consolidates into a single image what she has been writing all along. Parents are broken vessels; humans are, too; stories are, too.
In the fourth essay, “Give me a child before the age of seven and I will show you the woman,” Tumarkin writes at great length about the Australian journalist and Holocaust survivor Vera Wasowski. In this section, she reveals rare truths about trauma and survival rather than sketching Vera’s life with comfortable simplicity. “We, soft-fleshed denizens of the West, have come to rely on a certain image of a Holocaust survivor (and other kinds of survivor too) taken over by their moral and emotional compulsion to testify lest the world forgets…But a just-as-powerful compulsion inside survivors steers toward silence.” That is, the reality that Wasowski may choose to remain silent, or to lie, or just to enjoy her post-trauma life without dwelling, is a less popularly acceptable story than that of, for instance, Elie Wiesel, who made it his life’s work to testify. Many survivors cannot do what Wiesel did, not because they’re weak, but because, as Tumarkin demonstrates, trauma is an inconsistent beast.
Above all, Tumarkin’s gaze is fixed most intently on time:
Time is what makes everything OK. How it flows forward and circles round itself, both; how life, suspended, zero gravity, in time consists of so many things repeating. Getting up, the brushing of hair, toasting of bread, sun shooting up in the sky, taking keys out of your pocket to open doors. Seasons. In the benign repetition of daily acts an invisible net is cast, holding people up, protecting them.
Time and memory elide into an idea called the past:
Time makes room for timelessness…Everything has already happened. The past does not move through the present like a pointed finger or a shadowy confessor in a long cloak. The past is not told you so. Not this is how it all began. It is a knock on the door in the middle of the night. You open the door and no one is there.
Yet ever it knocks:
I remember: the past is all we have and it’s not enough.
Tumarkin demonstrates fluency with multiple modes of writing, using them all to probe the past and its impact on human survival. She mixes and matches freely, writing neutrally on the facts about a girl’s suicide, and then addressing the dead girl herself with the ache of a poet: “Oh, Katie…were you conjuring the world without you in it—or with you in it, only dead?” She writes of her own life, whether expressing frustration about the progress of this very book, or comparing her experience as a child of Jewish parents with Philip Roth’s. She integrates colloquial and even vulgar language with Orwell and Didion and Andrew Solomon. She lifts into the lyric register without warning and, once her reader is appropriately breathless, swings back toward journalism.
It’s the work of a virtuoso, someone who has relentlessly honed her ability to make ideas progress rapidly through sentences, using an order and style that she has innovated, such that the path to a reader’s enlightenment is steep and narrow but clearly marked. Like Maggie Nelson’s, Tumarkin’s is the kind of writing that makes much creative nonfiction seem clumsy and rudimentary, as if everyone else is writing way too many words about smaller, pettier ideas. Perhaps it’s a messy book, or a difficult one; but it’s also impossibly beautiful, precisely because of its messiness and difficulty. By the end, the reader has almost grasped something lovely, something elementally true. But, alas, it slips through her arms and escapes back into the wild.