Alex Miller's Max is a heartfelt meditation on friendship and the past

Australian author Alex Miller. Picture: Kate Miller
Australian author Alex Miller. Picture: Kate Miller
  • Max, by Alex Miller. Allen & Unwin. $29.99.

Max is a meditation on friendship. Beautifully written, engaging, deeply human, it is also a tale of grief and loss. Alex, an undergraduate at Melbourne University, and a migrant from Britain, meets Max Blatt, a migrant from Germany. They quickly become close friends.

Yet there is a significant age difference. Max is 55 when they meet, Alex in his early 20s. They spend long hours at Max's home, where he lives with his wife, Ruth, talking for hours.

But happy also with companionable silence. We do not know what they talked about but we discover that Alex knows little about his friend's life before they met.

Max dies, although the two men had not met or spoken for over two years. Alex does not go to the funeral which hurts and disappoints Ruth.

But then Alex decides that he needs to know more about Max. He knows that Max was tortured by the Gestapo in 1933 as a German Jewish socialist. That he fled Europe, spending most of his war in Shanghai, where he met Ruth, before coming to Australia.

The book is the story of the search for Max. It takes Alex, who is now eighty, and his wife Stephanie, to Germany, Poland and Israel.

In the course of his journeys Alex makes new friends, friends for life. The reader takes new joy in these friendships, just as much as the joy to be found in Alex and Max's friendship.

We also learn a great deal about Alex Miller, one of Australia's most highly regarded and most awarded novelists.

He is a reserved man, careful in his comments, slow to reach conclusions. The reader learns that it was Max who encouraged Alex to write in the first place and who gave Alex his first story, published many years ago in Meanjin.

Max sets the standard for everything Alex will write over a long life. Although, of course, Max never know this.

Alex knows that Max grew up in the then German town of Breslau, believes that he had one sister and has a nephew in Israel. He believes he was tortured in Berlin for at least three days and that this experience scared him deeply.

A friend in Melbourne asks how he will handle the Holocaust in his book. Alex explains he is not writing a book about the Holocaust.

Starting from this ludicrously small base of knowledge Alex sets off to discover the records in archives and libraries. There must be records, he believes, though "I feared that to search for Max among documents might be to lose what I had of him in my heart".

It is not possible or desirable in a review to reveal the twists, coincidences and happenstance that invade the story from this point on.

We enter deeply into the sophisticated and deep Jewish culture of Breslau, then Germany's third largest city, world-renowned for its buildings, synagogues and wealth.

We mourn the destruction of that culture and the extermination of most of Breslau's Jewish population. The reader recognises, possibly in advance of the author, that this is a journey with the Holocaust at its very centre.

The major breakthrough comes, after years of searching, when Alex finally makes contact with Max's niece, Liat, now a widow living on her farm in Israel near the Sea of Galilee.

In their first conversation, by phone, Liat reminds Alex that they had met before. As a 15-year-old Liat had lived for a year with Max and Ruth in Melbourne and she easily recalls Alex calling for his regular conversations with Max.

It is somewhat astonishing that Alex had forgotten this entirely and that, at the time, he had not asked Max much about Liat at all. He would have then learned, as he now learns, that Liat's father, Martin, the only member of the family apart from Max to have survived the Holocaust, is one of Max's five siblings.

There is a haunting photo in Max of all the siblings, the youngest then two, four of them to be murdered by the Nazis.

'We are a damaged people', one of Liat's children tells Alex in Israel, but not seeking pity. This is the extraordinary richness of Max. It reveals the Holocaust in the destruction of one family.

It explains the sadness, the grief and the guilt Max carried with him all his life thereafter. It explains why Alex was so drawn to Max and how he failed so utterly to know anything about him.

The book tells us to cherish our friends, as we cherish our families. It tells us about the determination and vigour that real friendship demands. It tells us about a fine Australian writer and the wellsprings of that writing.

It is a book to savour and to pass among your friends.

This story A story of friendship and the past first appeared on The Canberra Times.