Friday, June 19, 2009

Bend in the Road By Jeanne Barrack

Reviewed by Victor Banis

Set in 19th century Poland, Bend in the Road is really two novellas, linked together by common setting and common characters. In the first of the two stories, In The Lion's Den, a penniless vagabond, Aryeh, joins a traveling troupe of Yiddish performers in need of a leading man. Aryeh meets and falls in love with pretty young Dani, who is soon playing the female lead, Esther, in their upcoming play, opposite Aryeh's King Ahasuerus. But Aryeh, experienced in the homosexual life, thinks Dani is too young, and Dani thinks Aryeh doesn't find him appealing.

In the 2nd of the novellas, From Stage to Stage, the troupe is hired by a prominent Jewish merchant to perform for his daughter's wedding, and the group's musician, Yuval, composes a musical version of The Emperor's Nightingale. Yuval, secretly gay, is fascinated by the merchant's homely gardener, Tvsi, whom Yuval recognizes as a kindred spirit, and when he hears Tvsi sing, Yuval realizes that he has found his nightingale – and also the love of his life. But, things don't go smoothly.

The stories are both charming and sentimental, in the nicest sense of the word. The settings are colorfully evoked and one truly gets a sense of sharing the lives of these people. For the most part the characters, even the minor ones, are well limned. Both stories have a folkloric air about them, almost a fairy tale quality, so it is probably less critical than it might otherwise have been that the two villains are mostly one-dimensional, almost the archetypical ogres of old legend. Or, Golems, if you will. Indeed, the stories remind me of fables handed down through generations rather than stories recently penned, which gives them a nice sense of authenticity.

There are, however, inherent problems with writing historical fiction, and they are compounded when the fiction is set in a milieu that might be considered exotic by many. The author must provide enough detail to lend verisimilitude, and not so much as to bog down the story. It is much like cooking: you want seasoning to add to the flavor, but not so much you can't taste the chicken. Here, the author's use of Yiddish phrases and words sometimes threatens to overwhelm the bird. Some of them are familiar enough and some of them readily grasped in context, but some also can have a reader unfamiliar with the language scratching his head. The effective result is that it is likely only those familiar with the language will really appreciate these stories to the fullest.

I asked the author about this issue and got this explanation from her, which seems reasonable: "One of the reasons why I included them was because of the very diversity of the members of the troupe. Some might have been speaking Polish or German or Hungarian. Aryeh more often than not would be thinking and speaking English since this was his first language and using Yiddish as a means to increase communication with the other members. Rather than saying, ‘Ruven spoke in Hungarian with a sprinkling of Yiddish words’, I just sprinkled them in. I wanted to let the reader know that what you spoke impacted on your status (for instance, Froy Silberstein's use of German) Also, to translate every word into English to me lost some of the flavor of taking place in another country."

The author adds a glossary at the end, but a good story is a dream shared by the writer and the reader. Ideally, the author wants the reader to forget he is reading a book and, in a sense, live the dream. But when the reader stops to look up a word, the spell is broken, and he is reminded that it is, after all, just a book.

None of which is to say the average reader, without knowledge of Yiddish, shouldn't, or wouldn't, enjoy this book immensely. I would recommend, however, that the reader forego resorting to the glossary while he is reading the stories. Even without understanding every expression, the astute reader will find little difficulty in following where the story goes and what the characters are about, and he can remain in the author's thrall – which is really the end most to be desired.

Notwithstanding this authorial choice of vocabulary, however (and it is just that, a choice, neither good nor bad of itself but simply how the storyteller chose to present her work) it is self evident that this was a labor of love for the author, and ultimately the affection she so obviously feels for her characters and their lives overrules all other considerations. Those who are willing to suspend their questions and read on without undue puzzlement will find it a lovely book, and well worth the reading. Then they can go to the glossary and look up those unfamiliar expressions at leisure. And perhaps gain a useful education in the process.

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