Off the shelf | New translations open windows on Jewish lives

Although I normally focus on new Jewish books in this column, the works reviewed today were composed long ago. But until now they have suffered the most common disease afflicting world literature: absence of translation. Fortunately, there are publishers and translators committed to bringing some of the world’s enormous, but often neglected, backlog of significant literature to English readers.

Chilean Alejandro Jodo­rowsky is best known as the iconoclastic filmmaker behind the surrealist cult classics “El Topo,” “The Holy Mountain” and “Santa Sangre.” In a different genre, the 1992 “Where the Bird Sings Best” has just been released in an English translation by Barnard College professor Alfred MacAdam to considerable acclaim.

The novel is a sort of pre-autobiography, using extreme and often surreal imagery to portray the hardships of Jodorowsky’s family, first in Ukraine and Lithuania and then in Chile, up to the time of the author’s birth in 1929. With its confusing family trees and winding intergenerational plots, the book feels a bit like what the classic saga “One Hundred Years of Solitude” might have been if Gabriel Garcia Marquez had been born to Jewish immigrants and ingested hallucinogenic substances.

As I read the book and admittedly felt tested by the nightmarish visions and surreal imagery that occupy its pages, I recalled a South American professor during my college years explaining his culture’s penchant for magical realism: Using a gross generalization, he asserted that South Americans embrace what they see when they sleep as part of a greater reality, while North Americans dismiss such visions as “just dreams.”

Although the book’s surfeit of sex and violence is too much for my tastes, Jodorowsky’s arsenal of vivid imagery forms a powerful vehicle for representing Jewish immigrants’ lives. And even with its visions of dead bodies floating in honey and its cast of rabbis, circus performers, anarchists and ballet dancers, the book is also solidly rooted in the historical world, with interesting insights into conditions in Chile in the 1920s.

There are few books born of Israel’s wartime experiences as significant as “Khirbet Khizeh,” written in 1949 by S. Yizhar (the pen name for Rehovot-born Yizhar Smilansky). It is drawn from the author’s own experience as an intelligence officer during Israel’s War of Independence. The novella depicts its narrator’s participation in the expulsion of Arabs from a village during the 1948 conflict. There is no killing, but as the residents are forced out and their village is razed, the narrator feels tainted by his involvement in the operation.

Just as the philosopher Schopenhauer noted that “most of us carry in our heart the Jocasta who begs Oedipus for God’s sake not to inquire further,” there is a part of me, as someone who loves Israel deeply, that did not want to read this book. It is indeed a disturbing experience, and this fact may underlie why it took more than half a century for an English rendition to appear. However, I would propose that when we refuse to read a book like this out of fear that our enthusiasm for Israel will be tempered, we may be revealing that we are unhealthily attached to a mythic version of history.

And remarkably, this reluctance to face the moral complexities of history has not been the case in Israel, where “Khirbet Khizeh” has long been a part of the secondary school curriculum (although not without controversy).

The translation is by Nicholas de Lange, the British rabbi and Cambridge professor best known as Amos Oz’s chief translator, and Yaakob Dweck, who teaches at Princeton. I was delighted to learn that they have recently embarked on an English rendering of Yizhar’s 1958 novel, “Days of Ziklag,” also about Israel’s War of Independence. This towering work of Israeli literature has similarly never been brought into English, and for an understandable reason — it is nearly 1,200 pages long.

Jurek Becker’s “The Wall and Other Stories” is small, but it is not slight. This collection of six stories, most of which have never been published in English, displays the Lodz-born author’s gift for small, intimate narrative. Becker, who died in 1997, is best known for his debut novel, “Jacob the Liar,” which was made into a fine East German film and a lousy American one. The stories here are disproportionately concerned with the experiences of children — a dimension particularly appropriate for an author who survived the Lodz Ghetto, Ravensbruck and Sachsenhausen as a child, but who, as revealed in a short concluding essay, remembered virtually none of it later on.

Set during the Holocaust, the title story is narrated by a 5-year-old boy whose family is relocated from the ghetto to a camp outside its walls. Wishing to reclaim their possessions, he and another boy sneak back into the ghetto, and cannot find their way out past the ghetto wall. In addition to its significance specific to the Holocaust, the wall inevitably invokes the Berlin Wall — Becker lived in East Berlin after the war and defected to West Berlin in the late 1970s (although he did not give up his East German citizenship).

Fine translators are often unsung heroes, enabling the literature of nations to become the literature of the world. It is my hope that we will continue to see older but worthy works receive the treatment these books have now received.


Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

“Where the Bird Sings Best”
by Alejandro Jodorowsky (416 pages, Restless Books)

“Khirbet Khizeh”
by S. Yizhar (144 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

“The Wall and Other Stories”
by Jurek Becker (128 pages, Arcade Publishing)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.