Aharon Appelfeld’s The Retreat has shades of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a bit of Kafka’s strange realism, and Appelfeld's patented sense of looming, uncertain doom.
Jewish residents of a mountain retreat, sanatorium, or prison (we are never sure which one) struggle to rid themselves of their Jewish traits. They attempt to stand up straight, to be less argumentative, to be fair in their dealings with others. These all fail, and in the end the intimates of the retreat are forced to pawn their possession just to remain in the place where they have failed.
A trenchant critique, it is difficult to say what, exactly, Appelfeld is critiquing. The inmates may simply be Jews living in a European retreat on the verge of World War II, and are subject to all manner of discriminatory measures. Their attempts to rid themselves of their intractable Jewishness are then ironically wrong. They will never rid themselves of Jewish traits, for their enemies will not let them do so.
This book could also be a commentary on the Zionist ideal of the Jew. The inmates of the retreat are 'typical' Diaspora Jews viewed through a Zionist lens. This view accepts much of the anti-Semitic rhetoric about Jewish parasitism and corruption.
Either way, this strange, even twisted novel keeps the reader slightly off balance. Appelfeld has written us into an odd world, where the unsettling is all too true.