Excerpt from Louisa by Simone Zelitch, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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by Simone Zelitch

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  • First Published:
    Aug 2000, 384 pages
    Dec 2001, 384 pages

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Louisa made up our bed matter-of-factly, as though all of this were just as she'd imagined. She opened our little suitcase and pulled out our dressing gowns, modestly climbing into her own under the sheet, and kissing me before laying her head down and at once falling asleep. She curled there, with the bedding tucked around her and a crescent of disinfectant powder clinging to her cheek. Her hair fanned her arm, and the softness of that arm, the fairness of that hair, stirred as she breathed. Her breathing put me in mind of her singing voice, which is moving and a little uncanny and implies an intelligence you can't see in her face. I watched her for a while, and then I heard a voice close to my ear.

"Csodálatos! Excellent human material."

Hungarian. I turned, and inches away on a neighboring cot sat a Pole in a leather jacket. He addressed me, but his eyes were on Louisa.

"They'll never let her stay in Israel. Who knows how she got this far." He introduced himself. "Yossel Berkowitz. A man of business."

"You're not Hungarian," I said. "How do you-"

"What don't I know, Nagymama? There are businessmen in Hungary, in Italy, in Greece, in all the mighty nations. Now Hebrew, that's another matter. All Zionists must learn Hebrew."

I took him in: dull eyes under a fur cap, broken nose, stained teeth. I said, "You don't look like a Zionist."

Amused, he said, "Nagymama, do you look like a Zionist? We're all Zionists now."

I had to laugh, in spite of the foul air, my lack of sleep, perhaps even because of them; they're both narcotic. Maybe hearing my mother-tongue disarmed me, because for the first time in who knows how long, I put more than four words together. "In this room, then, I'd say there are more Zionists than there were in all of Hungary before the war, and what a likely bunch of recruits, God help us. Do you include my daughter-in-law?"

"Give me your daughter-in-law," he said.

I didn't answer. I only stared.

"You want to be rid of her. Of course you do. How can she sleep?"

Then I could only say, "I owe her my life."

Berkowitz laughed or coughed. A light blazed, and with a brief, dismissive gesture, he placed a burning cigarette in my hand. "You break my heart with your gratitude. So she saved your life. She gave you yours, and you give me hers. A fair exchange."

I inhaled. It was my first smoke in a week, and confusion peeled away, allowing me a clarity impossible without a cigarette. My circumstances arranged themselves. I was in a cold room with a lot of strangers. Why should it concern me? In the morning I would find Bela at the new address he'd sent me. One night. I had passed worse nights, and with Louisa. I touched the place in my stocking where I had put Bela's telegram, and a shot went through my bones. It was gone.

Berkowitz broke through the silence. "There's something you're not telling."

Forcing some equilibrium, I managed to ask him, "Why do you want Louisa?" He smiled and replied, "Do you realize how much people would pay to fuck a German?"

Reprinted from Louisa by Simone Zelitch by permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Simone Zelitch. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission

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