Wednesday, July 1, 2009

REVIEW: Isaac's Torah, by Angel Wagenstein

Isaac's Torah, by Angel Wagenstein. Published 2008 by Other Press. Translated from the Bulgarian.

Isaac's Torah is a gently bittersweet comic novel, about one Isaac Blumenfeld, a man who lives through disaster after disaster as history happens to his village of Kolodetz in Eastern Europe. He lives through the fall of the Austrian empire, the rise of the Soviet Union and the atrocities of World War 2 and the Holocaust, trying to hold on to his friends, his family and his sanity. He succeeds and fails to varying, and tragic, degrees.

Isaac's sense of humor- and in no small measure, sense of the absurd- buoys him throughout. Isaac's jokes and metaphors are present throughout the story, to explain, clarify and offer perspective; it's also a deeply cultural and characteristic element of his storytelling, to explain things via folktales and family stories and comes from the rich tradition of teaching through storytelling. Explaining his naivete at the beginning, Isaac says he was ignorant because he hadn't eaten enough herring heads, and goes on to tell the story of a Jew who sells some herring heads to a Pole, claiming that eating herring heads will make the Pole smarter. "Five heads for five rubles," the Jew says, and the Pole agrees. As he eats the herring heads, the Pole changes his mind: "Why did you charge me one ruble per head when a kilo of herring costs half a ruble?" "'Don't you see', says the Jew, 'how you're already getting smarter?'" "So my point," Isaac continues, "is that wisdom comes with experience, in other words, with the quantity of herring heads eaten, if you know what I mean."

Isaac will need his sense of humor as he falls in love and marries, loses his family and suffers mightily through the years, and the book is peppered with asides and jokes like this one. He divides his story into five sections, why the book is his so-called Pentateuch or Torah. By his side is the redoubtable Rabbi Shmuel Ben-David, his best friend and closest confidant, whose adventures and turmoils act as commentary if you will, to Isaac's own.

I really enjoyed Isaac's Torah and found it to be a rich and rewarding read. Isaac is very likable and the way he experiences events on such a close, personal level brings the sweep of 20th century European history into perfect focus. I love how Wagenstein shows all of his characters adjusting to the shifting political sands. Isaac's story is Europe's story and the Jewish story in microcosm and I think readers interested in these topics would enjoy the novel. Readers familiar with Jewish folklore and storytelling will appreciate that aspect of the novel and Isaac's unique voice. I read the novel in translation (it was originally written in Bulgarian) and found it fluid and accessible but I can't help but wonder what I'm missing, unable as I am to taste Wagenstein's Yiddishized Bulgarian original. But I'm glad I read it anyway, and I hope you do, too.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

8 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Sounds like a good book. So much of Yiddish seems to be untranslatable. I recently finished "Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish" by Dovid Katz (a book which I loved by the way) and he points out how much Yiddish as a language emphasizes the humorous aspects of the negative, probably because there was so much negative. And Primo Levi [also] wrote (in "The Periodic Table")that the vocabulary of Yiddish uniquely illuminated the disparity between the “divine vocation [of the Jews] and the daily misery of existence. … The Jewish people, after the dispersion, have lived this conflict for a long time and dolorously, and have drawn from it, side by side with its wisdom, also its laughter.”

The translated work has been so entertaining, one wonders how much moreso the originals would be!

Nymeth said...

I will! Funny and bittersweet is a combination I just can't resist :)

bermudaonion said...

The book does sound good. I always wonder what I'm missing if I read something that's translated, because some things are hard to translate.

mattviews said...

Thank you for an enlightening review. The stark irony--telling some of the darkest periods in European history in a novel full of humor, is very appealing. I'm glad to hear that the book is fluid despite it's been translated. I have always have the preconceived idea in Russian literature that owing to the meaning lost in the process translation, I do not catch half the jokes in the original. I'll check this one out for sure. :)

Diane said...

this one sounds so so good. i really loved your review; thanks

Sandra said...

I keep running across this book, it sounds like my kind of story. I read Isaac Bashevis Singer's books when I was young, my first experience of Yiddish in translation.

Zibilee said...

Sounds like a wonderful book. I like the fact that it is a poignant book that is laced with humor. Going to be putting this one on my wish list. Thanks!

chinwe said...

I swear, I just finished this book. It made me want to laugh and cry in equal amounts. Wagenstein doesn't follow the idea that a book has to end happily ever after. Rather, the ending left me asking why o why does bad things happen to good people- you know, the same thing I ask at the end of every bad day.