Albert Cohen wrote this book jn 1972 when he was eighty years old and approaching death, as he states early on in the book. It describes his experiences and emotions when, on his tenth birthday, he encountered a street vendor in Marseille, where he was living at the time. A small crowd had gathered around, and the boy was fascinated by the colourful goods the vendor was selling, so bought some trinkets with the money his mother had given him for his birthday. The vendor noticed the boy’s dark hair and eyes and began insulting him for being Jewish, telling him to ‘shove off, scum,’ and ‘we don’t like dirty bloodsucking Jews here.’ The people around him either laughed or kept quiet, adding to the boy’s pain.
Stunned and anguished, the boy left the group and wandered through the streets, trying to understand what had happened, coming up with all kinds of fantasies, analysing the epithets that had been hurled at him, and wondering why it was his fate to be so accursed and reviled.
The remainder of the book consists of the whirlwind of thoughts and ideas that go through the mind of that ten-year-old boy, associations with biblical events and characters, the history of the persecution of Jews throughout the generations. Particularly prominent is the association with Christ and Christianity, whose principal teaching is ‘love for others,’ clearly taken from the biblical injunction to ‘love thy neighbour.’ The irony of this association recurs throughout the book, as the reviled Jewish child tries to reconcile the insults that have been hurled at him and his race with his affection for his mother and other people, whom he knows to be good and kind. All the time, as he wanders aimlessly through the streets of the city, seeing people talking and laughing as they sit in cafes, his mind is churning, trying to find ways to make non-Jews like him, thinking up all kinds of wild and unlikely strategies and strategems to achieve this.
Addng insult to injury, as he wanders along, in a turmoil of emotions, the child encounters the words ‘Death to the Jews,’ and ‘Dirty Jews,’ scrawled on walls. These slogans only add to his confusion and distress, and suddenly he seems to see them wherever he turns. He is a child, but his thoughts are expressed in the language of an adult, with repeated use of a rich and varied vocabulary. The phrases used to abuse him continue to reverberate in his head, alongside his understanding of Jewish and general history, his expression of patriotic love for France, and his aching desire to love non-Jews and be loved by them.
Acknowledging that he himself was spared the horrors of the Holocaust, yet able to describe the situation and the emotions it aroused in the victims, the author points out that there is a direct line between the germ of hatred of Jews that has persisted for thousands of years and the death camps of the Holocaust in the supposedly enlightened twentieth century.
At the conclusion of the book the child returns home, only to encounter his parents as they are on their way back from the police station, where they have gone to report his disappearance. At home he tells his parents what happened as they sit in his parents’ bedroom, and the three of them weep together. In the final chapter the author issues a plea to all humankind to be kind to one another and put an end to hatred.