by Nancy Wigston
Dead Man's Float by Nicholas Maes (VThicule Press, 438 pages, $22.95, paper, ISBN: 1550652117). Nathan Gelder, thirteen, is rescued from the impending destruction of the Jews of Holland when a visiting uncle from Montreal leaves him an "open ticket" for a ship to Canada. But the wrenching apart of this boy from his Jewish mother and Protestant father, and their humble home in The Hague, where his father waits tables in the city's best restaurant, haunts Nathan for the rest of his life, before it erupts in a final act of retribution. Lying in a hospital bed after a serious stroke, Nathan, seventy-two, bathes in the pool of his past, remembering his life in great detail.
Maes, who teaches Classical Studies at the University of Waterloo, dips into the story of Odysseus the wanderer for this portrait of a survivor who never feels at home in the world. Most touching is the portrait of Nathan as a boy, exploring the streets of Montreal in a parody of the tourist's holiday his parents have fantasised as the purpose of his trip. Throwing himself into the study of languages, he learns new grammars as fresh horrors unfold in Europe, in a hopeless search for understanding.
Several characters resemble figures from myth: Netti, the Jewish neighbour girl who "knows things", is a Cassandra figure who haunts and almost destroys Nathan; his lover and fellow survivor Trudi is a kind Calypso, who dwells in her Toronto hotel-island and is abandoned when her routines become too predictable; Sue, his shiksa wife, is a faithful Penelope, who tries to knit together her husband's unravelled life¨and later mends the lives of the downtrodden instead. Burdened by their mythic roles, the women are truer as symbols than as living characters. The final act in Nathan's life approaches the apocalyptic, when evidence seems to reveal that this bookish man has murdered a demonic rock-god, a nihilistic figure with a cult-like following. There are seeds of logic here, but Maes tries too hard to force it all to work. So much wit and wisdom on the burden of being a Holocaust-inheritor precedes the end, however, that Nathan and his restless wanderings remain etched in our minds.