Friday, March 13, 2009

How did a Catholic boy write this?

Songs for the Butcher's Daughter: A Novel
by Peter Manseau

I am a secular Jew. Like myself, this novel is far more ethnic than religious. It's incredibly Jewish, but at the same time wonderfully inclusive. What I mean is, you do NOT have to be Jewish to read and enjoy this novel. In fact, it is a tale literally being told by an outsider.

Songs for the Butcher's Daughter is a story within a story. On the surface, it is the fictionalized autobiography of Itsik Malpesh, "the last Yiddish poet in America." Born in 1903 in the middle of a Russian pogrom, Malpesh leads a picaresque life that takes him from the town of his birth to Odessa, from Odessa to New York, and eventually to Baltimore, Maryland. It's a long, eventful, tragic, dramatic, funny, and occasionally joyful life. In the course of its telling, Malpesh documents anti-Semitism in the old world, the birth of Israel, the death of Yiddish, the American immigrant experience, and a saga of star-crossed love. But it's so much more. Itsik's is such a human story! It's beautiful and compelling and grabbed me right from the opening pages.

The story within this story comes in the form of copious "translator's notes." Itsik's memoir was written in his native tongue, Yiddish. His story is being filtered through an unlikely translator, a young, non-Jewish, college grad with an all-but-useless theology degree. The most marketable of his skills is his knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet. It's enough to get him a job in a warehouse of Yiddish literature run by a Jewish organization. Bored beyond belief, this nameless narrator teaches himself the language and embarks on his own journey which eventually leads to nonagenarian Itsik Malpesh.

Amazingly, Itsik's story and the narrator's story have strange little connections that reminded me of the subtle connections between the stories in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. However, these coincidental connections shouldn't have surprised, as the past never really seemed to stay the past in Itsik's long life. People came and went and reappeared when and where you least expected them. Or perhaps where you most expected them. Call backs and foreshadowing were used to good effect, and overall the writing of this debut was impressive. The story started to drag just a bit late in the novel, but the ending was so satisfying that it hardly seems worth mentioning. This is a truly auspicious debut, and I will be waiting with considerable interest to see what Peter Manseau writes next.

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