18: Jewish Stories Translated from 18 Languages (Part Two)

(Note: this review is a continuation of Michael Greenstein’s review of 18: Jewish Stories. Part One can be found here.)

Translated from Hungarian, Gábor Szántó’s “The First Christmas” is set in Budapest, in 1969 with a flashback to 1944 – a double time frame characteristic of so many of these stories that remember the Holocaust. A father explains to his children that the reason they don’t celebrate religious holidays “is that for modern enlightened people, religious things are outmoded.” The past always complicates the dichotomy between tradition and modernity, festive lights and the Enlightenment. The English translation seems a bit rough at times: “they suspected that the relaxed attitude was not a good augur” and “the soldiers boozed up.”

Christmas turns to Purim in Jasminka Domaš’s “Purimspiel,” which begins with protagonist Tamar indulging in the “fruit of the season” and carnival atmosphere. Purim and fragrant donuts coalesce: “And in the four corners of the world, in Purim plays Queen Esther will appear, multiplied in her numerous characters, as if she was reflecting herself in the infinite holographic cosmic mirror of the Purim story.” Polymorphous and carnivalesque, Esther and Tamar celebrate their multicoloured costumes across the Diaspora. “What mask shall I put on this year? What will I find when I turn the world upside down?” In this inverted cosmos Tamar ranges from The Zohar’s mysticism to “a manifesto by Marx and Engels,” from Kabbalah to India, and from Cyprus to Tel Aviv where she practices Hebrew in the masculine gender. 

“But this is not the end of the story.” In Domaš’s blend of Kabbalah and carnivalesque, she finds herself at the feast of Divali in India instead of a Purim party in Croatia: “she had started off on a long journey” where “at least she was properly dressed.” Domaš’s Diaspora is indeed a long journey in a multicoloured dress code.

Augusto Segre’s “Purchase of Goods of Dubious Origin” begins on an Agnonesque note: “Concerning work, the holy texts and educated people have said very beautiful, important, and edifying things, even if the hard reality of life doesn’t always coincide with their wise aphorisms.” Segre’s story points to the disparity between holy texts and hard reality, and between emancipation and imprisonment in the lives of the Levi family. Their “perfectly balanced” faith and honesty in business soon becomes unbalanced when Elia the father makes a serious mistake in business, which affects his son Giuseppe, who studies law to become a magistrate’s clerk. The story ends melodramatically when Giuseppe shoots himself: “The glorious, alluring Emancipation had offered a new sacrifice on the altar of Liberty and of the Country of Laws.” Giuseppe’s mantel of many colours cloaks the magistrate, dubious origins, and authentic origins of identity.

Law and justice take on a different colour in Lily Berger’s Yiddish story, “The Rebbetzin’s Sense of Justice.” Told from the point of view of the sole female student in the class, the story shows the humanity of big Khaye, wife of the teacher: “big Khaye was prepared to stand not only before the Law, before the rabbis, but even before God Himself in order to demand that there should be some justice in the world.” In the name of fairness, the Yiddish tale challenges religious hierarchies and balances the primitive against the modern.

Maciej Plaza’s “Golem” uses some of the longest sentences in the book to draw out a sense of hastening in an incantatory fashion: “Her mother and father had hastened, because a daughter is indeed a gift from the Eternal, but also a burden; they had hastened … because there was no lack of devout young Jews …”

As this sentence stretches, it concludes with a couple of “as if” clauses that measure the time of Shira’s “first blood” – the monthly moon against eternity: “as if they had heard about it from somewhere, as if they had learned about it from the rising and setting of the moon, they had been sending their offers to Nachman, the Liciska matchmaker, for after all, the daughter of the saintly Reb Gershon, who as a tsaddik, lived modestly, but was famous for his wisdom and righteousness, was a splendid match.” If a golem is constructed from lumps of clay, then “Golem” is fashioned from cumulative clauses that draw on several hundred years of tradition. Multicoloured inks adorn the marriage contract, even as polychromatic rituals enter the story’s magic realism. After all the words, the story concludes with “a language that none of the living was destined to understand,” and that “only one who is silent is never wrong.” 

In “Frozen Spring – Jerusalem Returning” Entela Kasi creates a mosaic of Jerusalem’s stones from 1938 to 1998, with a reminder of the Holocaust through an Albanian lens. Hannah and Kozeta enter a ceramics atelier in the Old City where porcelain bowls are on display. The eyes of the master craftsman take “on another color, somewhere between shadows of grass and grey clouds.” Pavement stones enter into the kaleidoscope: “They had a unique color, somewhere between white and light beige. The same color as Mother Thalin’s braids wound around her beautiful head. The shade was between baked wheat grass and hay. This afternoon Hannah was dressed in a long, olive-colored dress.” The polychromatic colour scheme turns white at the very end of the story.

Norman Manea’s “The Place of Birth: Report on the State of the Union” takes the form of an official report in 1928 with an assembly of rabbis. The story ends with the birth of Noah, a symbol of survival. “Surprisingly, the starveling in the incubator already had nails. Little, bitsy, minuscule, invisible – the nails, though, of survival.” 

Luize Valente’s “Sonata in Auschwitz” is set in Berlin, 1999 and incorporates Portuguese fado music in the narrative. Michel Fais’s “The Researcher” is devoted to Franz Kafka. In a letter to Kafka – “Lieber, Anschel, Lieber Franz” – the narrator invokes silence: “I’d rather be silent about our Kafkaesque relations.” She then offers some historical and geographical context: “I was born fifty-two years after your death in a border town in Northern Greece.” In keeping with the mood of silence, that provincial border town is filled with “inconsolable Jewish ghosts at its deep core.” In retrospect she reviews her unfulfilled initiation ceremony into adulthood: “I feel the haunting of a perpetually postponed bat mitzvah.” The researcher imitates Kafka’s fragmented being “in the Kafkaesque Babel” – the same multilingual enterprise that comprises this entire collection of stories.

The narrator keeps her own journal, From Mafalda to Franziska, which  covers modernisms and Moses in “the linguistic desert of his time.” She transforms herself from a fatigued researcher to a disheartened heroine in Kafka’s comic abyss with its fluid and centrifugal characters. Her story ends with a turn to Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” and its global impact. Fais braids Winehouse to Kafka, “a fusion of linguistic and stylistic elements” – yet another hybrid of the Diaspora.

Journeys, rituals, and colours recur in translations from Ladino, Danish, Czech, and Turkish until the final Russian story – Isaac Babel’s “Red Cavalry.” In the landscape of war, the narrator’s transport travels on a highway “built on the bones of peasant men by Nicholas the First.” Babel’s scenery unfolds amidst colours and similes of expressionism and surrealism: “a midday breeze plays in the yellowing rye … like the wall of a distant monastery…. An orange sun rolls across the sky like a severed head.” Babel’s rhythm and balance recall Eliot’s Waste Land and Prufrock’s evening spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table. More important, however, is the second half of Babel’s sentence where the severed head becomes personal: “a gentle light glitters in the ravines of clouds and the banners flutter over our heads.” Babel’s parataxis creates a deceptively easygoing slide between registers of the horizon on the verge of collapse. A universal guillotine hangs over the macabre horizon: “The scent of yesterday’s blood and dead horses seeps into the evening’s coolness.” These sentences march in a rhythm to the beat of the horses – all the initial “The”s acting hypnotically upon the landscape.

Babel adds an element of sound to these photographic scenes of crossing the Zbuscz River: “The blackened Zbuscz roars, twisting the foamy knots of its rapids.” With Dickensian detail, this blackness extends and contrasts with other colours: “The river is strewn with the black squares of carts, filled with rumbling, whistling, and songs that thunder over snakes of moonlight and glistening pits.” Blackness is a sound that contrasts with “two red-haired, thin-necked Jews,” who are neither thick-skinned, nor stiff-necked. Amidst this Bosch-like, apocalyptic scene, he finds “shards of the sacred plate that Jews use once a year – on Passover.” Thus, the crossing of blackened Zbruscz contrasts with exodus at the Red Sea. When the narrator orders the woman to clean up the place, “two Jews spring into action …. monkey-like, like a Japanese circus act.” Dispassionate only on the surface, Babel modulates domestic interior and external carnage. The earlier solar head turns lunar: “Silence has killed everything off, and only the moon, with its blue hands clasping its round, sparkling, carefree head tramps about under the window.” Little difference between the commander’s corpse and the pregnant woman’s Jewish father, as the cool-headed narrator scans the aftermath of heated slaughter. In a mere two pages, Babel captures the essence of a pogrom in a blood-stained universe.

From the Tower of Babel to Isaac Babel, Nora Gold’s 18 is a treasure-trove of translated stories.

Dr. Nora Gold, previously an Associate Professor, is currently the Founder and Editor of the prestigious online literary journal Jewish Fiction.net. She is also the prize-winning author of three books of fiction, as well as the recipient of two Canadian Jewish Book/Literary Awards and praise from Alice Munro.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Cherry Orchard Books (Nov. 21 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 300 pages
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 979-8887192062